Some of my favorite Dilbert strips are those that show Dilbert in some common social situation which, for him, is a thing of peril and terror. Awkward, fearful, his mind numbed by performance anxiety, Dilbert overthinks, makes a misstep, panics, overcorrects, and fails.
I empathize. Oh, how I empathize.
I know people who seem to navigate any and all social situations with the same serenity I would feel if suddenly asked to sing the national anthem to an assembled crowd (which is a lot). Their witticisms make sense; their small talk sounds natural; they put others at ease. I regard these folks with an admiration bordering on reverence. The last frankly friendly action I performed was sometime around 1979. It backfired, and I have never really gotten over it. All my social overtures since then have been shadowed by some degree of second-guessing or self-doubt. The very thought of talking on the telephone to anyone other than my mom, husband, or kids makes me queasy. Large gatherings make me fantasize about the superpower of invisibility. In conversational clusters, I get the feeling that everyone’s just waiting for me to go away.
As a writer, I get a “walk” on this from society. For a writer to be socially maladjusted is almost a point of professional pride. But the excuse doesn’t hold up because fiction, when it comes down to it, is about people and their interaction. In my stories, I handle all the facial expressions, friendly overtures, playful banter, and heartfelt outpourings with competent skill, so on some level I have a working knowledge of these things. But in real life, I am groping in the dark—afraid of doing too much or too little, of offending unintentionally, of being scorned, misunderstood, rejected.
So my own conscience doesn’t let me off, and neither does God. As a Christian, I believe that all people have intrinsic and imputed value: made in God’s image, and potentially redeemed by the death and resurrection of his only begotten son, who besides being fully God is also the only perfect man ever to walk the earth, and was himself despised and rejected. Jesus ventured all, and had his love thrown back in his face—and still he persisted, and made a way. If God loves people so much, then I as his follower ought to imitate him.
But the truth is that I am sadly inadequate to the task. It would be one thing if I knew in my better moments that my fears were wholly unfounded—but they’re not. My overtures really are rebuffed or ignored at times, and often I really do fumble my words and look like a fool.
My good friend and former pastor, Wayne Stiles, has said many things that I will never forget. One of them is that anyone who is playing at all in the Christian life is playing hurt. Welcome to the world! Everyone’s been betrayed, disregarded, ridiculed, let down. Even those socially adept folks I admire have their scars. My own personal set of injuries, however valid, does not exempt me from loving people, from knowing and being known. It’s risky, yes, but life is risk.
So I keep on—awkwardly, inadequately, even fearfully, but with a perseverance powered by the God who thought I myself was worth the risk.