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I used to think that being surrounded by likeminded people was always a good thing.
It absolutely can be, to an extent. When you feel as if you’ve found “your people,” life starts to feel a bit less overwhelming simply due to the proximity of those familiar faces. You can find support in others, comfort in friends, and peace among the people you care about most. But this isn’t about the benefits of friendship, it’s about the hazards of stagnation that same comfort presents.
As I’m sure anyone who grew up in a small town can attest to, being surrounded by those same likeminded people for too long can start to have a debilitating effect on you if you’re the kind of person who yearns for more out of life.
There’s this weird feeling you get where you can look at the same people who once made you so comfortable, and you can suddenly see into their future. You see time aging their faces and slowing their movements right in front of you as if someone froze that framed moment and hit fast forward. You can see the years flying by and watch as those same people will be doing the same things in the same places their entire lives.
Sometimes, this can be comforting. For those who prefer the expected and safe, those who feel stable within the security of routine and the cyclical nature of tight-knit towns.
Depending on what you want out of life, this could be your cue to plant your feet firm and permanently set down your roots. You may not have chosen where you were raised, but you sure as hell can choose to stay. You may see the future in that single moment and feel that it looks just fine to you. And so, you take your flag and plant it proudly. There’s nothing wrong with that when you know you’ve made a conscious decision to dig your feet into what you already know.
Then again, looking around your group of hometown familiars in that frozen moment, watching the months and years fly off of their faces right in front of you, can be a truly eye-opening moment. It can give you a terrifying anxiety about the fate that is also in store for you if you don’t take action. If you don’t see the walls you were born within for what they are, you’ll start to feel doomed to die within them as well.
Learn how to walk away
My case wasn’t so extreme as the soul-squeezing influences of small town mentality, but suburban predictability ran just as parallel in my mind. When you look around your group of friends and realize that no one seems to have any aspirations of ever leaving the few square blocks they grew up on, you really start to reevaluate if you share as many interests with them as you may have thought.
People feel comfortable in groups, and it’s no surprise why. I understand it completely. Especially now, after a year of Covid restrictions, I’m truly starting to crave the feeling of safety in numbers.
I moved to California from Ohio almost five years ago. I felt that I had nothing more to be gained by sticking around those old streets and letting even more time slip past me while there was so much more to be seen in the world. I left my closest friends and my family behind for greener pastures and ended up on the other side of a dry horizon, settling in San Diego in the most South Westerly corner of the golden state. It may not have the same lush greenery as a Mid-West forest, but where is lacks in tangled foliage and stoic pine, it makes up for with the rolling static of the sea. I’ve always felt a deep peace near that soft saltwater growl, and know that whatever I end up ultimately doing with my life, I’ll want to be as near to it as possible.
*Side note: I wonder if the fact that I was actually born in California had anything to do with my desire to return? Is that an actual thing? Being drawn to where you were born? Or is that just in movies and flying salmon? Maybe if I had been born in Ohio I would have had an easier time staying? I only lived in California for 4 years before we moved away, though, so it’s not like I knew what I was missing…anyways…
As much as I love the coast, in the time I’ve lived here I haven’t really reclaimed that sense of community I may have felt back home, as weak as that sense was even then. No, all I knew before I moved was that I needed to get away, to be alone, to be as close to a movie cliché as possible and “find myself.” I knew that sticking around the same people doing the same things would only serve to stifle that inner exploration by always giving me an excuse to lean on others instead of learning to lean on myself.
Over these past few years, I’ve gone from someone who found safety in the stagnation of the crowd, to someone to who understands the benefits of solitude and just how much faster you can grow as a person when you have no one there holding you back. It’s like having the energy to go hiking up a mountain, and wanting to bound ahead with confidence, but being stuck with a group of people who keep stopping and taking snack breaks and sitting down to roll joints instead of doing what you want to do which is, well, hike. Taking on that mountain alone may be dangerous, depending on the mountain of course, but knowing that you have no one holding you back from barreling up it with joyous abandon is such an empowering feeling that you may wonder why you ever relied on anyone but yourself.
I’m not saying that all groups are bad, of course. Or, that tackling life’s disasters and challenges with other people should be avoided. Absolutely not. I understand the power of connection and the necessity of help from loved ones. We don’t get through this life alone, and we shouldn’t have to. No one is discounting the importance of friends and family, but when you notice that the environment you find yourself in doing more to stifle you than to water your blossoming spirit, it may be time to find a spot more aligned with the sun.
Solitude on the move
It can be easy to drown in the stagnation of a crowd if you’re not careful. It’s harder, but always more rewarding, to embrace solitude on the move.
When you’re stripped of the familiar comfort of friends and family, when you find yourself alone with nothing to guide you but your instincts and curious spirit, you start to see who you really are when the security of that social armor falls off. You’ll find how much less you actually weigh, how much faster you can move on your own, and how much more capable of conquering your life you are when you aren’t being sucked into the quicksand of petty quibbles and predictably repetitive conversation.
We all know that this year was a real wake up call for how much we need each other, but it should have also been a lessen in how little you know about yourself.
For many of us, it allowed us to see just how little we actually need in life and how much more rewarding it can be to develop a relationship with ourselves instead of always relying on other people to distract us. Although there are those among us in this world who are perfectly content never talking to a soul, our connections with others can be imperative to a healthy and happy life. That being said, it only makes up half of the equation. Developing a relationship with ourselves is just as, if not more, important. It’s that self-confidence and knowledge of our own potential and personal empowerment that allows us to truly flourish, with or without the encouragement of others.
These past few years on my own, away from all the old connections and habits I was so used to, I’ve evolved my inner world exponentially from what it used to be. Without those comforting faces allowing me to fall into social safety nets, embracing me no matter what I chose to do with myself, I was left on my own to develop that sense of security within myself. I became capable of dealing with the world on my own. Not that it was preferable, but because I needed it to be possible. I needed to know that no matter what happened to anyone or anything in my life, I was going to be okay because I had built an inner fortitude against unknown trials and hardship.
It’s when we allow that social half to start to overtake the majority of our sense of self that we start to stagnate in the crowd surrounding us. We’ll start to feel slower, more dependent on other people to guide our lives instead of developing our own sense of direction.
We need to learn to pick our own preferred speed by moving in our solitude. We’re lighter this way, our path unobstructed by outside influence and suffocating social obligation. We can see who we really are and who we actually want to be when we take off the shaded glasses of our origins and see the world without the filters of friends and family.
It’s about finding that power in solitude that makes you appreciate your social settings even more. You can become more present with the people you choose to surround yourself with because you won’t feel so suffocated or distracted anymore.
And when you do start to feel yourself starting to slow down and stagnate in that same crowd, you’ll be able to remember just how good it feels to fly freely on your own.