On Groups, Needs, Elena Ferrante and Balance

Immediately following the 5rhythms dance class that I mentioned in my last post, I called A.

(Well, not immediately: first I dried off and re-applied layers and shoes and chatted with the Canadian next to me: “Wait, so how are you supposed to re-enter the world after that?” I asked him. “Gently,” he replied, handsome head tilted back. “That’s too bad,” I said. “Because I have to go meet my mother at Bloomingdale’s.”)

Anyway, after that, and while walking up Sixth Avenue en route, I asked A (from whom I’d learned of the class, and who would have joined me if not for the flu) the most urgent question that hurled to mind during my experience: how, I asked, could she balance those twin impulses vying for attention—the one to turn inward and explore your soul’s discrete qualities, and the other, to look out and absorb the (completely fascinating) scene?

She answered in monotone: “I’ve never had that problem,” she said. “It’s you. The class is just a mirror for how you go through the world.”

“Right,” I said. “I know that.”

I did know that. I do know that. (It’s just that, books and films notwithstanding, we tend to experience life pretty exclusively through our own lens; it can be frighteningly easy to forget that others exist.)

I remembered that conversation last weekend, which I spent with a group of ten friends at a cabin in a bluffy, snow-draped section of southern Minnesota. We sled, we skied, we saunad and sang and feasted (pork butt and oysters, I’m actually not kidding) and danced until we hurt. It was, in other words, wondrously, enormously joyful.

And, also, extremely exhausting. As one pal and I took a side moment to note, groups are great—but they can also be a lot of work.

Especially if, like me, you have a hard time pulling yourself away.

I don’t even want to go pee, I murmured to those adjacent on Friday night, before racing downstairs to the precise sound of pealing laughter that I feared missing whilst away.

It is a basic human need to belong, to feel included and intimate and connected and warm. But those needs take particular shape within all of us, and to different degrees; my childhood (along with DNA, I reluctantly suppose) fostered within me an acutely fierce longing to be part of a group, to feel secure within a community. It also instilled a chronic, sometimes paralyzing sensitivity to the social energy around me: does that person feel sad, or are they just tuning out? Is she doing okay in the back of the car? Are we spending too much time on a topic that someone won’t be able to grasp?

It’s an extension of empathy, I guess–a quality for which I’m thankful. (Though I don’t see it as purely positive: often I’m so focused on what other people may–or may not–be feeling, I tend not to notice much else. Like, what the landscape looks like or whether the oven is turned on.) I also think it’s part of being female in our culture: we’re taught from early on to be emotional caretakers.

One of my favorite lines in the book I’m reading comes at a moment when the main character, a young girl, goes with her father to see the ocean. She’s awed: “I had the impression that, although I was absorbing much of that sight, many things, too many, were scattering around me without letting me grasp them.”

That image resonates: who doesn’t sometimes fear being unable to keep up with the richness of what’s around us? I’ve felt that way in nature, in the Rocky Mountains or red-arched Moroccan coast. But more often I feel that way about other people: there are so many interesting, intelligent, complicated humans in this world; I feel fortunate for the many with whom I cross paths. Will there ever be enough time to soak them in!?

Of course, there won’t. Just as we can’t ever witness all of nature’s vast offerings, we only have time to get to know so many people. In the grand scheme of humanity and space, we are so limited and so small.

And, as I am continuing to learn, we are often more limited than we realize.

I loved being around friends last weekend. But when I got home, I felt like I needed about a week to decompress. I loved paying attention to those dancing around me in that dance class, but I also wish I’d spent more time focused on myself.

There are certain challenges in keeping up with external demands, but others, perhaps greater, in responding to internal needs. Often, they aren’t as overt or as loud. They don’t suggest fun things, like limbo at one in the morning or cross-country skiing the next day. They just fill space quietly, their only expression a formless, inarticulate ache that expands and expands until you remember to pay attention.

I do need to be around people, to feel connected and secure and all of that. But I also need a good deal of time alone, to process and be quiet and think and write and read. All of us require at least some of that in order to take care of ourselves.

And for me, I am increasingly reminded, that time is something I can too easily let slip. The impulse to remove myself, to focus on what’s happening internally, doesn’t come naturally: too easily and often eclipsed by the urge to look outward, to connect, to participate and watch and observe.

I need both. We all do. And for me (and, perhaps, for you) striking the right balance may be a lifelong piece of work.