I am currently enrolled in a leadership training program at a local college. One evening each week I go for seminars that are supposed to teach me how to make those tough power decisions, how to lead people effectively, how to craft policy, etc etc. The actual content of the classes so far have not really given me any new information, but I figured it would be worth participating in this program for the contacts I’d make and the networking I could do.
My current job goes away at the end of the grant period, so I know I will be changing positions sometime in the next year and a half. During that time I want to clarify my values regarding what sort of work I’d really like to do and get myself established in a work environment (and possibly a different community) where I can make a positive contribution and feel a sense of connection.
So when I went to my class Thursday evening, one of the specific outcomes I was looking for was to meet two or three people who might be a good resource for me to model or learn from as I sort out my future option. There were about 18 participants in the seminar sitting at tables that each held 3 people. I got there early, so I sat down in an empty room and looked over the materials as I waited to see who else would come.
As it turned out, the two other people who sat by me were both unemployed middle age women with limited educations who were taking classes in the hope of it helping them get work. Neither of them had ever held professional positions and their idea of what a “good” job was seemed to be light years different from my perspective. They were nice enough ladies. But they were clearly NOT the sort of contacts I had been hoping to meet.
Throughout the seminar I would catch myself looking longingly over at some of the other groups, wishing I’d sat in a different spot. There were plenty of movers and shakers in the room. Just not at my table. I stayed with those women and made conversation in a positive way. Yet I felt myself rather dismissing them because it didn’t appear that either one of them had much to offer me in terms of either mentoring or peer rapport, the things I was specifically hoping to get.
Ever since that experience I’ve been doing some self examination about my expectations and how I interact with other people. In my private social life I really don’t give a rip how much education a person has or what type of work they do. I have friends with GED and friends with PhD, and enjoy the company of folks across a wide spectrum of the socio economic ladder. So I don’t really think of myself as being a snob. What I look for in people I hang out with is authenticity, an open & curious mind, and positive enthusiasm for life. The more a person displays THOSE characteristics, the more I generally enjoy being around them regardless of what the details of their history are or what their current social position may be.
However, in this particular seminar setting, I paid big bucks to go get some professional training and networking opportunities. So in that context, I was looking specifically for how I could get the most return on my investment. I was more than willing to offer the knowledge & resources I had to others, but I also wanted a chance to find some value in return.
I never thought of myself as being a better or more important human being than the two women at my table. But, clearly, I felt like they were not even in the same league as me professionally. In that particular context they appeared to have nothing to offer. As such, I wanted to move on.
So why didn't I? I suppose I could have excused myself and moved to a different table. However, I sat with those two women through the remainder of the evening and was able to give one of them some tips about a couple different job opening that I knew of. Rather than finding a resource, I became a resource for someone else. That’s a good thing, right?
I suppose so, in a way. Still, I felt really disappointed about how the evening had played out. Beyond that, I cringed with dread as I was leaving when one of them said “see you next week, save us a spot, ok?” I have NO intention of sitting with them again. My rationale is that I want to sit with different people EVERY time so that I meet the widest range of people possible. But I know in my heart that had they been powerful movers and shakers I would have felt honored to be invited to join them again. So if I’m being really honest with myself, I have to admit that I was judging them negatively and planning to move away from them in the future based on their lack of education and professional experience.
I hate it when I catch myself judging people.
And yet…I am mindful of an experience I had when my sons were in middle school. They had a group of kids playing in the yard. A couple other kids I did not know showed up and wanted to play, My oldest son told them no, they could not participate in the game and they had to leave. I was very concerned about this so I called my son in to talk about it. I asked him why he wouldn’t include the other boys. He said “Mom, I know you are always teaching me to be accepting of other people, and that’s fine. But there are some people who you just don’t want playing in your yard.”
We had a long talk about that – who we have as friends and who we don’t and why. I’ve never forgotten that conversation. I’ve also never entirely come to terms with my own ambivalence over who I will include in my social circle and who I will not.
In my church congregation I can honestly say there is not one single person I would be unwilling to take a meal to if they were sick or to help in some other way if it were in my power to do so. Yet there are plenty of people I have no desire to be “friends” with. These people I greet in a polite manner, but keep myself somewhat aloof from. I can think of one particular woman who made overtures of trying to get to know me better when I first moved here. She and her husband have few friends and really seemed to want to get to know my husband and I as potential new buddies. I almost immediately sensed them both to be energy vampires, fearing if I spent any extended time around either one of them they’d suck the life right out of me. So I pulled way, way back. I’ve always suspected I may have hurt their feelings by my total unwillingness to be friends with them. I’m “nice” to them and always make a point of going over to shake hands and say hello. But I have no desire or willingness to include them in my personal life.
So what does that say about me?
The flip side of all this is my very vivid memories of moving into a community 2 moves ago where I was trying diligently to make new friends. One particular woman who I was eager to get to know better completely shut me off, telling me outright “I already have a circle of friends and I just don’t have time for another right now. I appreciate that you would like to get together, but I have to be very selective of the commitments I make so I really don’t have room in my life for what you want to do.” She did however accommodate OTHER people who came in new on the scene. Just not me. I remember how that stung.
I’m thinking of all this in context of who I associate with and who I do not. Our time and emotional resources are limited cups. We cannot possibly give everyone equal access to our schedules or our hearts. Yet what criteria will I use to decide who gets on the boat of my attention and positive regard and who does not?
There have been three particular people that I have really tried to “make friends with” here who I thought would be lots of fun to know, but who did not reciprocate. There are others who have reached out to me that I have deliberately withdrawn from.
What does it mean to “love thy neighbor”? Where does my social/spiritual obligation or opportunity start and stop?