[Originally published Jan. 27, 2013.]
In high school, I lied about why I never drank. “I don’t want to lose control,” I said. The truth—I don’t want to be like you—would no doubt have been less palatable.
I vividly remember being about four years old and asking my dad about the beer he was drinking. He offered me a tiny sip. I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but years later, I decided that “cold urine” was probably a reasonable approximation of its taste (I’ve never been tempted to perform the necessary experiment to validate my hypothesis, content to let it rest as conjecture). That was good enough for me. Whatever his motivations may have been, he largely ensured that I made it through adolescence without ever feeling the need to participate in that rite of passage.
Well… if I’m honest, I have to admit that being antisocial was an even greater factor. I would have agreed even then that it would be unfair to assume all drinks would taste like generic American beer. But my innate inability to feel comfortable in groups of people, though more passive in those days than it is now, made me recoil from the aggressively gregarious bonding. “I want you to promise me that you’ll at least try some kind of drink this summer. Please, just try it!” That was my classmate Ian, shortly before the end of our junior year, sounding for all the world like the newly-converted Christian teens who would plead with you that listening to Van Halen and the Scorpions put your eternal soul at risk.
For people who live unthinkingly, security comes from situating oneself in the middle of a group. Encountering a person who has chosen differently can carry an implicit rebuke, a reminder that there are possibilities one hasn’t considered, a demarcation of their narcissistic reach. Loners like me feel importuned by the pressure from those who blithely assume that of course any normal person would like the things they like. People like Ian feel uncomfortable by being forced to entertain the notion that others could see them clearly, understand them plainly, and gently deflect their invitation nonetheless. But that is one of the fundamental steps toward a meaningful individuality: the ability to be genuinely unconcerned with the approval of others, the possession of an inner compass that allows one to make one’s way without needing to constantly check the constellations of others’ tastes and opinions. I’m old enough now to feel reasonably confident in saying that a lot of people never seem to attain that ability.
True story: I encountered Ian again a few years later in community college. He was spending a few semesters there to save money, or so he said. Protesting the unfairness of his situation, he lamented, “I’m not a loser like —” he gestured around at some of the people in our vicinity in the cafeteria — “these people; I’m an economic loser!” What exactly he thought I was doing there, I don’t know, but he must have assumed I shared his plight, a future world-beater temporarily, and only temporarily, brought low, because he then suggested we should try to join a fraternity at UVa. You know, a real college for successful people. Where we could get drunk among equals.
Looking back, it might have been maliciously fun to tell him the simple truth: I didn’t want to be like him.