To Be Long
tom walsh


"don't be long," he told me
and i took him at his word.
but many years went by before
i knew i had misheard. 

These are, more or less, the opening lines of a poem that I began to write many years ago.  The main focus of the poem was to be my feelings of not belonging, of being isolated, outside of "real life" somehow, while the people who surrounded me were all somehow firmly entrenched in real life.  A sense of belonging has been something that has eluded me my entire life long.  Growing up in a military family, my brother and sister and I never felt any sort of sense of belonging, especially since my parents always elected to live off base--not only were we moving around constantly, but we never had any long-term friendships with the kids who lived around us, mostly because we didn't stay anywhere long enough for friendships to develop.  Besides, we didn't have much in common with them, as we would have had, had we lived on the base.

I reflect upon this because of feelings that recently resurfaced, and that come back to me rather often.  They're feelings of not belonging, of being out of place, no matter what my circumstances.  Most recently, they came back at church one Sunday morning, on a day when I really didn't have any real reason to feel that way.  I'm pretty active in the church, and I know almost everyone there, and they know me and my wife and stepkids.  In my brain, I know that I belong to the church, that I'm a part of it, that I'm completely accepted by everyone there.

Yet these feelings bypass my brain and go straight to my heart--if that's where they're going.  These feelings tell me that everyone else belongs there, yet somehow I don't.  They all have something over me, and I don't fit in.  So I sat there in church that day feeling completely out of place, wishing I could get away, but knowing that I shouldn't try, because that would be the worst thing that I could do under the circumstances.

The feeling reminded me most directly of a day that's always stuck in my mind for some reason--I was visiting a friend in Luzern, Switzerland, and one day I went for a long walk.  It was a cloudy, cold summer day, and as I walked by the houses and saw the lights burning inside, imagined the warmth of the home and the company of loved ones, a strong feeling of melancholy surfaced.  They were living life, it seemed, and I was somehow outside, looking in through a window (literally--and no, I wasn't being voyeuristic--a glance through the window to see the light was it for me) through which I couldn't enter.  People could see me, but I couldn't be a part of their real lives because of this something that separated us.  It's very similar, I think, to Roger Waters' wall in his work The Wall.   It keeps people out, but it keeps me in.

I can't tell you how many times I have left places simply because I felt I didn't belong there.  I can't count them, or even recount the experiences, because I try to leave such negative times in my past, but there have been plenty.  I've never done it on a job, because somehow the responsibility of a job outweighs my feelings of isolation, but I've certainly felt isolated and out of place at work.  Even now at the school where I teach I sometimes feel that everyone else there belongs and fits in, but somehow I don't.  They have something over me, it seems during these times, but I don't know what it is.

So why reflect upon all this on a website that's dedicated to positive, uplifting, encouraging material?  I think because that no matter how positive and encouraging I try to be, there will always be moments from my past that sneak in and try to make me feel bad.  I think that if we try to fool ourselves into thinking that every single waking moment can be positive and blissful, we're in for major disappointment not far down the road.  These moments, these thoughts, are there, and they're a part of me.  So what do I do about them?

At church, there are several people who are my "safety nets," if you will.  On those days when I feel like leaving, I go talk to them, instead, and even if I don't start to feel much different, at least I haven't succumbed to the feelings and further isolated myself by leaving, something that would be silly and destructive.  I've even told these people that I do this from time to time, and interestingly enough, they told me that they do the same thing.

My logic also helps me out, too.  I keep in mind many of the quotations that I've posted on Living Life Fully-- Longfellow says something to the extent that if we can see inside each person, we'll see enough pain there to rid us of all bad feelings about them, and I know that that means that other people feel bad in crowds, too.  Someone else said that we all crave acceptance, but that it's difficult for us to accept acceptance.  (You can probably tell that I'm not very good at remembering exact quotations.)  When I look around in a social situation, I always keep in mind that no matter how unique I'd like to think I am, I'm not so unique at all--there are definitely several people around who feel much as I do.  Some of them have learned to cope with it, some have learned to hide it, some have let it get the best of them and they've left already (or didn't come in the first place).

My goal is not to overcome these feelings and banish them; my goal is to live with them and deal with them on my terms, not on theirs.  I accept them completely for what they are--feelings.  And while I don't particularly like them, I know that they're an integral part of who I am, and if I try to deny their presence, I'm fooling myself.  These feelings have been very valuable in some of my writing--my first novel (unpublished, just like the other three), for example, is focused on such feelings of isolation--and for that I'm thankful for them.  But I don't want them to control me or my life or the way I deal with others, so when the feelings surface, I try to understand them and look for ways to cope.  I find someone to talk to, and if that person's busy, I don't listen when the feelings say "Hah!  I told you that you didn't belong!"  I just acknowledge that the person was busy, and I try to find someone else.  If no one's available, I find something positive to read to try to bring myself back up.

Sometimes, I even try to make friends with the feelings, to understand them and figure out what they want.  Rilke told us we should do this with sadness, so why not with isolation?

If you're dealing with feelings of sadness, please remember that you are not alone--not alone in the world, and not alone in dealing with feelings of isolation.  There are many of us out there, and we're all doing the best we can to cope.  Hang in there, and look for your ways of dealing with feelings of isolation--don't let them get the best of you!

Todo aquél que piensa que está solo y que está mal
Tiene que saber que no es así que en la vida no hay nadie sólo
Siempre hay alguien.
(All those who think that they're alone and things are bad
have to know that it's not like that and that in life no one's alone
There's always someone)

--Michael Chacón   from "La Vida Es un Carnaval"


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My doctorate is in Teaching and Learning.  I use it a lot when I teach at school, but I also do my best to apply what I've learned to the life I'm living, and to observe how others live their lives.  What makes them happy or unhappy, stressed or peaceful, selfish or generous, compassionate or arrogant?  In this book, I've done my best to pass on to you what I've learned from people in my life, writers whose works I've read, and stories that I've heard.  Perhaps these principles can be a positive part of your life, too!
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