Monday, November 25, 2013

When Parties Aren't For You

Early birthday cake with grandparents
Earlier this month, blogger Seth Adam Smith wrote a post about how marriage wasn't for him, and it went crazy viral. Many people loved Smith's father's advice: "You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy." Others, however, hated it and pointed out that, among other things, such a belief is toxic when told to someone in an abusive relationship. As is so often the case, what is a curative for some is poison for another. 

I was thinking about this when debating discussing with my husband this weekend how to celebrate our daughter's 2nd birthday, which is just a few days away. My husband and I are deeply ambivalent about hosting parties. We didn't have a party for her last year, but considering how many she has now attended, it seems as if social reciprocity requires it--that a birthday party for a toddler isn't really for the child (who won't understand what is happening or remember it anyway); it is for the community. 

I used to love having parties. That is, I used to love it when friends came over and we had some laughs and there was minimal prep and clean-up work on my part. These parties weren't simply fun; they were reassurance that doggonit, people liked me. The only catch was that I wasn't allowed to consciously exclude anyone. If I invited girls from school, we invited all the girls in my class. If I invited friends from church, the youth group came. We took our Methodist rhetoric about the open table seriously; all are welcome.

This theology was hardwired into my operating system, and it confused and grieved me when I realized that others didn't share it. Mom would try to soothe my pain by making excuses for classmates who bragged about their parties that didn't include me: "Don't take it personally; it was probably just that their parents only invited families that they knew; maybe they all belong to the same club or something." I did take it as rejection, though, and it increased my desire to avoid inflicting on others the same feeling.

The 'ya'll come' approach worked well for me into my mid-20s. College parties were spontaneous and required little work. (When your furniture includes cardboard boxes draped with scarves and the meal consists of splitting a Papa John's pizza order, there is no pressure to keep up appearances)

That all changed the year Stuart bought a house, and we began hosting 'grown-up' parties--inviting his State Department colleagues and such. Suddenly, 'ya'll come' meant rooms so crowded with acquaintances that many guests never sat down, several hours of cleaning and cooking, and considerable thought and expense put into what to serve and how to serve it (since apparently it is gauche host a grown-up party and ask folks to pitch-in). By the end of the party, I'd be wiped out from my catering and small-talk duties and near tears at the sight of the mess in the kitchen. Parties weren't fun for me anymore; they were hard work. While we still fantasized about our party ideas (rooftop dances, antique sheet music sing-along, caroling, brunch & croquet, etc), we'd sometimes go a year between having one.
Now I'm sure some of you are thinking that the obvious solution for introverts like me is to eschew such parties and invite over a few close friends instead. Yes, that can work sometimes, but I think that assumes that a party is for the happiness of the one hosting it, which I'm not sure is true.  The big Denyer Christmas party, for example, has a been an opportunity to show all our friends in town that we care about them--to make sure they get to carol around a piano at least once that season, have festive foods 'neath holiday decorations, and renew and expand friendships. Yes, it's a lot of work for us, but when we consider trimming the invite list, the guilt of crossing out anyone's name is too great.

The added complication, of course, is that I am now married to a foreign service officer and switch countries every couple years. Have I told you about that terrifying book they provide to spouses that has several pages on party protocol in the foreign service (including seating rules so complex that they suggest investing in round tables)? Yes, I know I'm overreacting; most of those rules are generally ignored, but there definitely is a rather high bar in this world I now live in when it comes to what/how one serves guests--including the small gatherings--such that it is often hard to tell when you are at an actual party or a work function. After all, the guest list is going to be about the same regardless.

This brings hubby and me back full circle in our debate discussion. If parties are for the strengthening of the community, we should have them more frequently and invite all of our American embassy colleagues* to anything that's larger than having just a few friends over. Yes, this can mean quite a large crowd with many children running about.  This is partly why those in our community who believe that parties are for their happiness have trimmed their lists. We often don't make their cut (because we haven't invited them to anything this year?), and I confess I get a momentary flashback to teenage insecurities each time I see pictures on my newsfeed of what we missed.  I don't want to do that to others.  But, then again, considering how rarely I host anything these days, perhaps others assume that I already did!

What do you think? Should parties be for your happiness, and, if so, when?

*and this isn't even addressing the Pandora's box about how very few of the locally employed embassy staff (i.e. non-Americans) ever get invited to after-hours social events hosted by Americans.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

An Open Letter to Those who Suspect I Dislike Them

Glaring at hubby: a vacation photo tradition
When I was a kid I had a diary. Reading it, you might think I had a miserable childhood. The truth is just that I only wrote when I was sad or mad; I was too busy enjoying life the rest of the time.    

I got to thinking about this when my mentor reminded me to balance the tone of my social media presence. If I primarily blog my criticisms of the efforts of well-meaning people and repost social commentaries, a lot of the folks I'm trying to influence might dismiss me as a grump.

That’s not who I am—at least, not all the time. Idealistic, stubborn passionate, and opinionated pensive, yes, I’ll agree to those labels. And yes, that can result in such profound frustration that sometimes I feel flames on the side of my face (Mom jokes that I popped out of her womb screaming with righteous indignation). Frequently, though, it also manifests as playfulness, hospitality, and moments of serenity. Married life has put a damper on my flirtatiousness and I’m less likely to let loose at a party now that I’m a pastor and Foreign Service spouse, but I still can be a load of laughs in the right setting. I’m not half bad as a shoulder to cry on, either.

For reasons I don’t fully understand (Pro bono offers of psychoanalysis and behavioral modification therapy welcomed), it has been noted that I am socially awkward in some settings yet charismatic in others. This doesn’t seem to have any correlation with how interested I am in befriending the people in these settings. For example, a few years back I was excited to meet a colleague of my husband who, based on descriptions, sounded like she could be my next best friend. Despite my efforts, though, our conversations reeked of forced politeness; I concluded she wasn’t fond of me and stopped trying. About a year later, my husband decided to put an end to my “Why doesn’t she like me?”s and asked her directly if I had made a faux pas or somehow offended her.  He returned home with this shocker: She had been wondering why I disliked her!

I’d write this off as an isolated tragic-comedy, but anecdotal evidence suggests a pattern. I suspect there are others who have incorrectly assumed I disliked them just as I have discovered I have been wrong in such assumptions (and have obsessed about all the ways I can be off-putting).  Hence, this self-disclosing post. (Links to studies or articles about this phenomenon are welcome; I've never found one, but I hope they exist).  If I ever crack the code to what's really going on, I'll let you know.

In the meantime, I'll wrap up with this:

If we've met and you suspected I disliked you, chances are it was the setting putting me out of my comfort zone--or me struggling to find a conversation topic that seemed to interest you--or me wanting to share with you about one of my passions--or me thinking that you weren't fond of me.  It could even have been me trying too hard to fill the uncomfortable silences with chatter. And while yes, occasionally there are people I find offensive or hard to respect, the chances that you (someone who reads this blog) are one of them are rather slim.

So, if we happen to find ourselves in the same town, perhaps you would like to share a meal or a hot beverage?

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Are we seeking the questions first? Mission Work and Jumping to Solutions (Part 1)

Birds for guests: the go-to gift-giving solution in Congo
I’ve been talking a lot lately about UNISA's doctorate in missiology program. The application deadline is next week, so it’s put-up or shut-up time if I’m really going to start this next year.

Updated resume?  Check.
Scanned academic records and passport? Check.
Completed research proposal outline?  Um… not exactly

As my advisor noted, I have some good ideas on topics to discuss in a dissertation; I even have some assertions to make.  I’m missing a vital element, though: the actual research question. 

My big question is way too broad:  “What are appropriate responses of Christians of a comfortable socio-economic status to the struggles of those of lower economic status?” How far shall I narrow my focus?  Perhaps “What are healthy responses of American United Methodists of dominant socio-economic status to the struggles of United Methodists in the North Katanga and Tanyanika Episcopal Area?” 

I laugh at myself that I started outlining what the content of my research would be before having a question. Typical American wanting to jump to the answers.  I’m forever catching myself doing what I lament that others do.

Middle-class Americans have a bad habit of latching onto solutions without first exploring the problem/question.  On multiple occasions Friendly Planet has had to decline offers from well-meaning friends who have come to us with their favorite solution (containers of donated items, funds for ‘appropriate technology,’ volunteer team of laborers, VBS instructors, etc.).  Like those gee-thanks gifts I used to receive from relatives each Christmas, just because an item is something someone out there could appreciate it doesn’t mean it is what the people you are offering it to really want or need.  And, just like those presents I regifted to Goodwill with the tags still on them, the amount of money well-meaning Americans spend each year on 'solutions' that aren't useful is tragic.

Together we can stop the insanity.  Let's start taking the time to truly get to know each other--our deepest longings and the complexity of our problems-- instead of wasting resources by rushing to solutions. Otherwise, our well-intended gifts will probably just lay an egg.    

For further reading on this topic, I highly recommend Sam Wells' brilliant piece on Rethinking Service (Read the entire piece; it starts slow with a powerful finish)