On the night watch

I ran across a quote a few days ago that was so fitting, at least for me, that I knew I’d have to share it.

Last Saturday, while my supermodel wife Nina was meeting with her CMT support group, I took the kids over to the Sacramento Central Library.  We had thought about the zoo, but it was pretty hot and we didn’t really want to be outside for three hours in it, so we pushed that idea back to the fall CMT meeting in September.  Besides, libraries are a fun place for me and my daughter, and were for my son too before he got sick (maybe still are, but his reactions are harder to read these days).

So we went into downtown Sac, found a handicapped parking space on the street (we have the little blue placard, as Nina and Sean both qualify), and headed in.  We went down to the Kids’ Place and Charlotte got to exploring, while I sat down with Sean and a stack of books I’d wanted to read but the Stockton libraries don’t have.  And it was in one of them that I found the quote.

It comes from a story called “The Perseids” by science-fiction author Robert Charles Wilson.  The context is that late at night, a man is being asked by his new girlfriend about his divorce, and he tells her how his ex-wife had “said I was never there … that I wasn’t completely engaged”.  Here’s the payoff:

Robin, who had studied a little anthropology, liked to see things in evolutionary terms.  “You have a night watch personality,” she decided, closing her eyes.

“Night watch?”

“Mm-hm.  Primates … you know … protohominids … it’s where all our personality styles come from.  We’re social animals, basically, but the group is more versatile if you have maybe a couple of hyperthymic types for cheerleaders, some dysthymics to sit home and mumble, and the one guy — let’s say, you — who edges away from the group, who sits up when everybody else is asleep, who basically keeps the watches of the night.  The one who sees the lions coming.  Good night vision and lousy social skills.  Every tribe should have one.”

“Is that what I am?”

“It’s reassuring, actually.”  She patted my arm and said, “Keep watch for me, okay?”

I hope that Robert Charles Wilson will forgive me for quoting four-plus paragraphs from his story — after all, it was originally published fifteen years ago, so I think he’s probably collected all the royalties on it he’s going to.  But it’s too good a quote for me to pass up.  Because, you see, Robin’s description of the “night watch personality” is also a pretty good description of my personality.  Not a perfect one — my night vision is terrible (to be more precise, my eyesight in general is terrible), but the rest of the details — isolation from the group, tendency to stay up late, desire to keep an eye out for potential threats to the clan, weak social skills — fit me to a T.

And it’s not a recent development, nor is it for any lack of attempts to fit in with the crowd.  I’ve always been this way, to a greater or lesser extent — and more “greater” than “lesser” as I drag my way into middle age.  I’ve always struggled socially, always had a knack for saying the right thing the wrong way at the worst time, always felt more comfortable in a quiet room with a pile of books.  Heck, on my blog I call myself a “professional outsider” — what does THAT tell you?  I’ve had to deal with it.

Even my heroes have been loners — I gravitate to them, often even before I know a thing about their personalities.  As a kid, my favorite baseball player (contemporary, as of the 1980s) was Rod Carew, the high-average first baseman for the then-California Angels, who was among the more taciturn of superstars.  My favorite player (historical) was Ty Cobb, who was cheap, sometimes racist, often violent, and had a streak of insecurity a mile wide.  (He also had a .367 lifetime batting average.  There is a bright side.)  Needless to say, I didn’t have much problem later on rooting for Barry Bonds, who relationally is sort of Carew with an attitude.  My favorite actors these days are George Clooney (refuses to ever marry), Robert Downey Jr. (not easy to get along with) and Ellen Page (fairly snarky), plus the notoriously antisocial writer/director M. Night Shyamalan.  My fave politicians of recent vintage have been William Proxmire (who had a long career in the U.S. Senate, but refused to ever campaign) and George Deukmejian (the anti-charismatic ex-governor of California).  Bill James, my #1 baseball writer, freely admits his own social incompetence.  The list goes on.  Even my favorite fictional characters are one-man bands like Ender Wiggin (Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card), Gordon Krantz (David Brin’s The Postman) and Xavier March (Fatherland by Robert Harris).  I’m amazed how long it took me to see the pattern … but I did finally spot it.

In recent years, I’ve begun adjusting to it, figuring that a personality that doesn’t change after decades of concerted effort probably isn’t going to change.  I can’t say I did this with a heart full of enthusiasm — more like resignation.  The reason for that is that the world is basically structured for people who do fit in.  To be a success in the public square, you have to be able to socialize, to glad-hand, to go with the crowd, to B.S.  Those who come across as expansive and bubbly get ahead; those who keep to themselves don’t.  Not to make too fine a point of it, but the Barack Obamas and Bill Clintons almost always beat the John McCains and Robert Doles.  It’s the way of things.

And I’m much more of a Dole, personality-wise, than I am a Clinton.  And I haven’t had much success in the world system, or in that copy of the world system, the institutional church system.  If you’ve hung around evangelical or Pentecostal congregations for any length of time, you know that they’re pretty much built by the social butterflies for the social butterflies, and people who aren’t as gregarious are expected to “get with the program.”  I can’t tell you how many times I have been told by Christian leaders (and followers), usually implicitly but sometimes explicitly, that I needed to rework my personality to conform with theirs.  And I tried, honest to goodness.  But I couldn’t — God had created me a certain way, and He wasn’t going to change it just for my (or their) convenience.  Eventually I began to learn to stop trying to fit the molds of others.

I stress, began to learn.  I do slip back into that error from time to time.  But at least I no longer live in it.  And as I learn, I find it easier to love God, to love people, to relax, to discover and develop my gifts and talents.  Because I’m not having to try and be someone else, I can do a much better job being me, and finding out what I’ve been created for.

And maybe what that is, is keeping the night watch, missing out on the cameraderie of the group (which, being who I am, I don’t miss all that much) in order to keep an eye out for the lions that might threaten it.  Maybe, like Ezekiel, I’m supposed to be a watchmen on some wall — by myself, but still serving a useful purpose.  And serving a useful purpose, not despite who I am, but because of it.

If nothing else, I think it’s worth exploring.  Thanks for the tip, Robert.


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