Goin’ Down the Road
So I went to a Unitarian youth group the other day. For those of you who don’t know what Unitarianism is, well, it’s murderously difficult to describe. Some Unitarians boil it down to “you can believe pretty much anything”, which isn’t exactly true, because you’re not supposed to believe in anything that would justify being an asshole. There’s also a strong progressive streak running through the religion, especially concerning social issues and the environment. They’re mostly concerned with the here and now, rather than with history and the afterlife, and earnestly try to make the world a better place using whatever means are available. They’re more interested in questions than answers and believe in personal rather than objective truth.
I found out about Unitarianism several years ago- I took an Internet quiz “what should your religion be?”- and was surprised to see I pretty much believed in everything they did. I checked to see if there was a local Unitarian church I could attend, found out there was, and then didn’t go.
I’m not naturally a church person, you see. Apart from the odd Christian service here and there, (some of them very odd) I never went when I was a kid. So as a young adult, the idea of wandering into a strange church full of unfamiliar people struck me at the time as frankly impossible.
A few years went by and my life took a turn for the worse. I was living in a hovel, I only had one friend, and to make things worse, it was January.
“Fuck everything,” I thought to myself, “I’m finding religion.”
So I did. I looked up the local Unitarian church and went the following Sunday. Over the next few months, I attended at least two dozen services. There was also a youth group for people in their twenties that I checked out a few times.
The services were great- thoughtful, meaningful, and not remotely dogmatic- but I felt awkward whenever it came time to talk to people. My attempts at mingling before and after the service were disastrous. Eventually I simply avoided socializing with the other congregants.
The people who attended the youth group were fine, but I felt totally disconnected from them. I stopped going to the youth group when I realized it was making me feel lonelier than I’d feel otherwise.
I stopped attending services shortly after that, because I wasn’t looking for peace and spiritual fulfillment. I was looking for friends.
Recently I’ve found myself in a bit of a rut. During the days I write and in the evenings I see Hannah. She’s the only one of my friends who I’m seeing on a regular basis, and that probably isn’t healthy.
About a week ago I thought, “Fuck it, I’ll try religion again.”
I looked up the local Unitarian church’s website to make sure the minister was still around, and he is (I like him a lot). I looked to see if they still had a youth group, and they do. They were meeting last Friday.
That was pretty short notice, but I thought, “What the hell.” Most of the best decisions I’ve made have started with me thinking that.
I told Hannah I was going to the youth group, and struggled to explain what Unitarianism was.
“It sounds like a cult,” she said.
“They get that a lot,” I said.
“I’d probably be too nervous to just show up at a religious event by myself,” she said.
“Well, I’ve been there before,” I said. “They’re nice people.”
And besides, what did I have to lose?
I contacted the facilitator of the group and asked where and when it was being held. She said they were meeting in some room in the church I’d never heard of before. So when I showed up on Friday evening, I had no idea where I was going.
There was a guy in his thirties in the vestibule who let me in (the door was locked), and I asked if he was going to the social group.
“No, I’m going to a thing upstairs,” he said.
“Do you know where Shaw Hall is?” I asked.
“No, I’ve never been here before,” he said. “It might be down that hallway over there.”
So I went down that hallway over there and managed to find it. The room was dark and empty.
I remembered trying to attend a youth group meeting a few years beforehand. It was supposed to be held right after the service, but nobody else had shown up- not even the facilitators. Some of the older congregants noticed I looked a little lost and tried to sort out the situation for me. An elderly women went off to see if she could find anyone in their twenties, and another elderly woman stayed with me and made small talk.
“This is how it always is,” she said. “Organizing Unitarians is like trying to herd cats.”
I decided not to wait around in Shaw Hall for people to show up, and thought I might explore the rest of the church.
But then two women showed up. We went into the hall, and shortly after that, the facilitators appeared.
I found it easier to talk with people this time. Substantially easier. It made me wonder what the difference was. I know I’m more confident now than I used to be, but why?
I suspect a lot of it has to do with my attitude. Obviously I wanted things to go well, but it wasn’t imperative that they do so. I knew if I made an ass of myself I’d still be able to go back to Hannah’s apartment and hang out with her and talk about it.
I don’t know if this is healthy, but the fact that I’m in a happy relationship seems to provide some measure of objective evidence that I’m not completely dysfunctional. This allows me more space to take interpersonal risks, because I know there’s at least one person with good judgment who doesn’t think I’m a fuck-up.
I mean, of course my family thinks I’m fine, but they have a familial obligation.
So I made small talk. I made jokes. People seemed to find my jokes funny. When we discussed freedom (the topic of the month, apparently) I provided opinions. At one point I was talking and struggling to properly articulate myself, and I noticed the facilitator was staring at me like I was on drugs.
And this didn’t bother me.
A minute or so later, the other facilitator agreed with the point I had tried to make, and said it had resonated with her.
Eventually the meeting was wrapped up and most of us went out to a pub.
Christ, I thought, I wonder what this’ll be like. A pub at 10 PM on a Friday night.
“I’d rather go to The Court Jester, if it’s okay with you guys,” one of the facilitators said. “It’s a lot quieter, and not as crowded.”
Well, that’s reassuring, I thought.
On the way to the pub, one of the women asked what I wrote about. She’d previously mentioned being a book lover, and I’d mentioned being a writer, so I had anticipated that this would come up.
In the past I’ve had a hard time articulating what it is I write about, but I’ve had to do it so often I’ve gotten pretty good at it.
I remember three years ago at one of the first youth group meetings I attended, I mentioned that I had just finished writing a novel. I’d poured years of my life into it, as well as a fair-sized portion of my soul, and was burned out thinking about it, and sad that I’d never work on it again.
“What’s your book about?” a guy asked.
“Uh…” I said. Time passed. “Well, I’ve been working on it for two and a half years, it’ll be about three hundred pages when it’s published, and it’s done now.”
“Well, that’s nice,” he said.
When he left, he said to me, “Hey, maybe the next time we see each other we can talk more about your novel. I mean, other than the fact it exists.”
This time, when the inevitable question arose, I said it was a coming-of-age novel about a year in the life of a twelve-year-old boy.
Then I asked her a question which deflected attention away from my hobbies and interests, because I still don’t like talking about myself.
At the pub, two more people asked me about the book, and I got even more practise in concisely describing the second-most intense, intimate relationship I’ve ever had.
The conversation rapidly broke in two. To my left, people were discussing their romantic relationships. Everyone was in a serious relationship, which surprised me. Usually at this stage of the game you get one perennial player, or one sad bastard, but everyone at the table was happy, well-adjusted, and in love with someone. It was nice to be with people who are in the same stage of life as me, and with similar priorities. To my right, I got drawn into talking about movies with the only other guy in the group. Because he and I were both movie geeks, the conversation consisted mostly of a rapid-fire exchange of titles, directors, genres, eras, and brief opinions.
When two movie geeks really get into it, the result can be pretty fucking intense.
Eventually the two conversations merged somehow, and we talked about the difficulty in describing Unitarianism. Two of the women had grown up in the church, and it was interesting to hear what that was like.
One of the women said that, as a child, she’d had to constantly reassure people that it wasn’t a cult.
“It’s the opposite of a cult, actually,” she said, “because there’s a complete lack of control.”
The other woman hadn’t had that experience, but had still struggled to explain it to her peers. “I used to say that it was like all Unitarians are traveling on the same road, but everyone’s going at their own pace and paying attention to different things.”
I felt comfortable and at ease with these people. They seemed decent and down-to-earth. Generally I’m uncomfortable with groups, but this felt easier than normal, and much easier than when I’d attended the youth group in the past.
The evening wound down and we went our separate ways. I waited for a streetcar with one of the facilitators. We talked about different events that were going on in the church. She asked if I was planning to make it to the Sunday service, and I said yeah. We talked a little about my previous experiences in the youth group, because we were standing across the street from where the group used to go to brunch every month.
“I don’t think I’m going to be leading the group next year,” she said. And I decided then and there that, if things continue to go well, I would attempt to replace her as facilitator. I mean, what the hell, right? The last time I decided to replace someone as the facilitator of a social group, things worked out reasonably well. And if I want to fit in- I mean really become a part of things- then the best way to do it is throw myself at the church as hard as I can and see what happens. I got nothing to lose.