A young orphan who, with her red hair, could easily be transposed with Annie without missing a beat. The dreaded orphanage in this story was as bad as Annie’s without the frolicsome nature but where tranquilizers were dished out like Reeses Pieces in an ET movie. Got to subdue the noisy children. God’s will. This is the backdrop of the novel The Queen’s Gambit and now Netflix mini series by the same name.
I finished the series last night but have not read the book, so I don’t know what exactly makes the protagonist, Beth Harmon, tick. It could be childhood traumas as she certainly had her share of them. But more likely, I suspect she suffers from a genetically-based disorder, a point in the spectrum disorder family of personality traits. Because she is fictional, the answer lies within the creative mind of the–now deceased–author, Walter Tevis.
Beth is extremely smart. A child prodigy, at least in chess. But it appears that complex mathematical computations come as second nature to her as well. But like in spectrum disorders she is socially challenged, often choosing chemicals over people for comfort. This is a good film and I suspect it is a good novel. But I want to use the premise of the story as a springboard about a much more in-depth discussion on social awkwardness. We are all on a spectrum when it comes with the ability to interact and to create relationships with other human beings. Some people have hundreds of friends and are always the center of the party, while others live lonely lives and feel perplexed and inadequate in the skills of building relationships and maintaining them. While this skill can be learn, or unlearned as in the case of trauma, often it appears that genetics play an important role too.
At a casual glance, it might appear that the ability to create relationships cannot be genetic as anyone can learn how to if they only try. Right? However, it may be more like trying to load a complex computer program from 2020 on a 1984 Macintosh. While the software may be clear, logical, and well written, the hardware of the old Mac cannot accommodate it. The circuits are simply not there.
I write this as someone who has long suffered from a modest level of social awkwardness. However, this article is not meant to be about my small world but to try and resonate with many others who have suffered as much or much worse. I suspect most or all people have socially awkward moments in their lives, especially when entering a new culture (such as another country) or a new sub-culture, (such as a new workplace). I share these things with good intentions because the socially awkward person invariably must wrestle with a low self-esteem. “What’s wrong with me? Why doesn’t anyone like me? Am I bad?” Those are the questions that meander through the minds of the friendless, although it could be at the subliminal level.
Some of my readers here say they like articles where I talk candidly about things that intersect with their personal lives, but which they would never speak about outside their own heads. If cancer has any impact on my writing here, it is being more bold, more candid, trying to speak for those who can’t.
I’m not sure when I realized that something was wrong with me . . . genetically. I think it was after I had kids and saw some of my children suffer with some of the same traits. I did not teach them this social awkwardness. Denise is far more socially skilled than I am and has always had an abundance of friends, so I do think it is something inherent. My same children share my scientific curiosity.
In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth, age nine, observes a janitor playing chess in the basement of her orphanage. She is intrigued with the game but knows nothing of the rules. This, at least my interpretation, is a metaphor of living with a social awkwardness, including those with variations of the spectrum disorders. However, Beth learns the rules of chess. She certainly does, maybe better than anyone else in the world . . . but social relationships remain a challenge for her.
This is how it feels to be so blessed with this configuration of seeing the physical universe so clearly (string theory makes sense to most of us on this spectrum) but failing to have the fundamental understanding of the rules of personal interactions. The rules feel unlearnable to us, despite our greatest efforts. We are the 1984 Mac.
I’ve decided, with trepidations, to share a personal illustration. I had hundreds to choose from. My hesitation is that I’m afraid these stories could be misconstrued as poor Mike being mistreated. But that is not the point I wish to make. I am 100% convinced that the problem in these situations is due to us socially awkward people’s perspectives, not then being socially shunned. It has to be. As one friend of mine used to say, “If you experience a string of failures across several situations, the one common denominator is you.” He wasn’t directing this at me, personally, but at people in general.
It Takes a Village
One of the situations that leaves me scratching my head until this day is a personal story where I wanted to be part of a group that led my church’s adoption of a remote North African village. The Sunday that I visited my church for the first time, some six or seven years ago, it was announced that the church was going to adopt this village. As someone who had a passion for working in humanitarian work the developing world, this really stood out to me. That’s why I went to medical school. It was my career choice, although thwarted. I was sure I could be part of the team that was coordinating this adoption since I had lived in North Africa for two years, traveled and worked with public health programs in several developing countries, could speak basic Arabic, the language of this village as well as read their script, and I was very familiar with Islam, the religion of the village. The perfect fit, though it seemed. My decision to attend this church was based on being part of that team.
I attended all the organizational meetings about this adoption of this village. At each meeting I made the point of talking to one of the team members telling them how badly I wanted to be part of this team. How do I join? Shrug shoulders. I never heard from anyone.
As a member of this church, we are asked annually to fill out a card describing our interests, places we wanted to serve. I put down that I wanted to be part of this village adoption team each of the first four years. I continued speaking to the team members about my desire to join them. I waited, I heard nothing. I sent emails to the pastor telling of my passion for this village project. She must receive a hundred crank emails per week. I came close to buying my own plane ticket and going to visit this village (a logistical nightmare because it was so remote). It was a passion of mine.
What were the rules? How do you become part of this team? I asked that question over and over without a clear answer. I was lost. I realize that I was new to this church and no one knew me.
Months passed, then a year and I didn’t hear back. As a last ditch effort, I decided to crash one of the team’s private planning meetings. It was profoundly awkward. One of the members, appearing to be angry, turned to me and asked, “Why are YOU here? You weren’t invited.” I said once more, “I just want to be part of this team.” An apparent social blunder on my part. On the way out, the group leader kindly invited me to meet me for coffee at Starbucks to discuss the situation. They were indeed looking for new members.
When we met, I told him again of my passion to be part of that group. I told him of all my qualifications, ex-missionary in North Africa, speaking Arabic, degree in medicine, working in establishing clinics in the developing world, taking students to the developing work, yada yada yada. He seemed impressed. I was excited, knowing that it would not be long before I would be invited. I was really excited.
But then came the email the following week. I must have read it fifty times, my eyes squinty and my jaw dropped. I felt like Beth in the story when she first sat down at a chess table and she looked up at the man playing and said with strain in her voice, “I don’t know the rules.” The email was from the group leader, “I discussed your interest and qualifications with the team at our meeting last night. There was a consensus that you don’t have the qualifications we’re looking for.” Loved to have been a fly on that wall. Painful. To the point, that I seriously was reconsidering my attending this church. Not out of bitterness, but because I wanted to be in a place where my talents could be used.
The people in this group are good people, whom I respect and I’m certain they had a logical reason for rejecting me. That’s what makes this even harder. They are smart, kind, and thoughtful. They had to have a good reason. There are social rules that I don’t even begin to understand. Many other people came to our church and were invited to be part of this village group right away. They knew the rules for getting in and I did not.
Denise suggested that it was because I was not a personal friend with anyone in the group, that friends invite friends, not strangers. Or possibly, I approached this in the wrong way, too aggressively. What’s the right way? I don’t understand.
Maybe Denise is right. But this is how we who suffer from this awkwardness feel and and the solution is on us. We must try our best to learn the rules and to program as much of the software that our hardware can endure.
Someday, if someone confined in me that I smell horribly, like a mixture of body odor and a rotten skunk, or maybe a sewer, then all of this would finally make sense. Damn sense. I often sniff my pits and find nothing. Is it my breath? But this is not the reality we have been dealt. When we socially awkward people enter a room full of strangers at a party, we start with the (false) premise that everyone there hates us. We work from that point. The truth is, we are not even on their radar and they certain don’t hate us.
Are you relating to any of these things? Have you ever wondered why you were rejected, not invited, etc? Ever been rejected from a job for which you thought you were well qualified for? If not, consider yourself blessed.
So, for those like me (or worse), we must remember that it really is on us. Beth, in the story starts to figure that out. But it is not because we are bad people. It is like many things, living in an imperfect world where shit happens. We must avoid blaming people as the world seems unfair to us, but trying our best to carry on in peace, driving around the potholes of life.
Personally, I want to work on listening. Professionally I was a listener for 38 years, but I’m not sure if I have allowed that to carry over to my personal life. I created Winston, the protagonist in Ristretto Rain, as an example of the perfect listener, a model for me to emulate. Listening is, or at least should be, the building blocks to relationships. Relationships the pieces of the grand chess game of life.
Some day if I were to meet God face to face I would ask him to explain dark energy and matter. The relationship between gravity and time. I have some theories on those. But also, the rules of personal engagement. With that, I am completely clueless.
Happy Thanksgiving. I hope it is a lonely one, meaning you’re being safe.
P.S. I know I have written here a lot lately, but tomorrow I return to Retribution and will not come up for air for a month. I can tell people are still reading the blogs, so I will keep writing.