Two years ago, My Esteemed Colleague was fretting as to whether or not he should attend his 20th high school reunion. As I’ve outlined in all my references to him on this blog, he’s always been quite the unapologetic Bohemian, and he had little in common with the people he’d meet there, and it had been decades since he’d seen any of them. Indeed, he felt a large degree of contempt for most of the class, and he was trying to get permission to give a speech at the reunion to excoriate his class for failing to live up to its potential.
So I asked him, point blank, why he would want to spend any more time with these people that he so clearly detested.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I guess I kind of saw the whole thing in terms of a movie. I always kind of assumed there’d be a sequel someday. You know, we’d be brought together again, maybe to perform some kind of task, because that was always what we did for the first twelve years of my life. It’s just been strange that life has gone on without ever having to see any of these people again.”
I was left to wonder what kind of task he’d be called upon to perform, when he summarized the feeling thusly:
“High school,” he said, “was the last time in my life when I felt like I was part of a community.”
This was a shocking statement to me, as I can’t remember a time in my life when I hadn’t been part of a community, sometimes several competing communities at the same time. My identity, in many instances, was and is defined by the groups with which I’m involved. That makes things difficult when the groups’ values don’t mesh well.
As an adolescent, much of my identity was determined by my time with the Kids of the Century, a performing arts group in Southern California. That was essentially my official membership card, but my broader affiliation was with the so-called Artsy-Fartsy Community. I considered myself an Artsy-Fartsy Guy. Like all brooding, soulful Artistes, I thought deep thoughts and Expressed Myself in any way I could. I associated with other Artistes more often than not, as we chuckled at the follies of people less enlightened than we were.
What I discovered, though, was that the Artsy-Fartsy Community wasn’t particularly fond of the Mormon Community. (Or the Republican Community, for that matter, although I didn’t really get involved in politics in any formal way until much later.) I tried straddling the line as much as I could by trying to make the Mormon Community more Artsy-Fartsy and, to a lesser extent, the Artsy-Fartsy Community more Mormon. Neither was too successful. (And by “not too successful” I mean “not successful at all.”)
This tension has ever been with me throughout my career. I went full Mormon as a missionary in the later eighties and came home to find myself being tugged back toward the Artsy-Fartsy. I ended up running a theatre and, later, working at a theatre, both in predominantly Mormon environments. I thought, maybe, that having Mormon artistes would solve the problem, but every Mormon artiste was either struggling with the same tension or had flopped over to one side or the other. This was an oil-and-water thing, and the dream of the perfectly balanced Artsy-Fartsy Mormon never seemed to be within my reach.
What I finally realized was that I would ultimately have to make a choice. What was really important to me? Was it the Church of the Artistes? I chose the former, and as a result, I pretty much got excommunicated from the latter. It didn’t happen in a formal proceeding the way it would have with the former if I’d decided to go to church naked, but the irony is that Artistes are far less tolerant of departures from community orthodoxy than Mormons are.
But My Esteemed Colleague’s sense of community wasn’t a result of shared values – he loathed most of his classmates. His sense of community, then, was simply a result of prolonged proximity. People who live through a war – or high school – for years at a time feel a kinship with others who have shared the experience, regardless of what they may think or believe.
I feel that way about my own high school, too, as well as college. I also felt a lot of that as a missionary, although most of those guys were on the same page philosophically. But even now, I feel closer to those Scottish missionaries and LDS Church members I knew back then who no longer believe what I believe than I do to people who share my beliefs but didn’t share the same experiences. Proximity is more powerful I’d previously realized.
As I get older, my reliance on community increases, even as my need to prove myself to the community decreases. My family provides the primary anchor, with my church in second place. I know these groups will accept and appreciate me in almost any circumstance, and I draw strength from my association with them. I think you only truly become a member of a community when you stop worrying what everyone else thinks of you. As long as you’re still trying to impress them, you’re not really one of them.
As for My Esteemed Colleague, he went to his reunion, and he gave his speech, which was soundly booed by the fragment of people who bothered to pay attention at all.