Here’s a story. It was the muddy, cold spring of 2012. When I arrived in Minot, North Dakota, to join the ranks of money-hungry oil field truck drivers, only one coworker resented me, and deeply. The others may have been bemused, but Justin was offended at my very existence. He was designated to be my trainer, unfortunately for both of us.
Thanks to the recession, he’d been laid off from a good union career path as an elevator repairman. Through no fault of his own, he’d had to seek employment he felt was beneath him, amongst people he felt beneath him, for an indefinite period of time — possibly long-term. He seethed. And now, adding insult to injury, was me — some chick on a lark, no kids, taking up space in an industry otherwise occupied by vocationally displaced men trying to feed their families. My presence trivialized the only serious thing he had left, adding insult to injury.
Justin took every opportunity to sabotage me, directly or indirectly, certain I’d get back in my Jeep and drive back to Arizona within a week. I proved stubborn. I floundered, muddy and tired, not giving up, but taking far longer to become useful to myself or anyone else than I would have, given proper guidance. Even worse, everyone else decided they liked me, by degrees, and he felt maligned by this. It took him a long time to stop holding his breath for me to quit, or be fired. And then he held his breath for me to drop the nice act and show my true colors. He didn’t know what those colors might be, but the less fake I seemed, the more certain he became that my fakery was even deeper.
If you want to know the truth, it’s this: I’m an introvert, and introverts don’t negotiate the world in terms of being liked (good) or not liked (bad) — we try to avoid undesired social obligations and entanglements. For us, being disliked could be good, depending, and being liked might be bad. It really depends on who’s doing the liking, or disliking, and how much of a sticky threat they seem to present. That’s a the 411 on introverts. Invite us, but don’t pressure us.
I’ve encountered Justin’s brand of distrust and skepticism periodically. What’s her game, what’s her real agenda? It’s tough for people to believe that someone might be genuinely nice, and also genuinely prefer to be left alone. Introverted men can be mistaken as aloof, while introverted women can be mistaken as snobs or schemers.
So, this situation came to a head in two separate, but related, gestures.
Scene one: the bowling alley. My boss treated us all to a party at the bowling alley in Minot, with as much free booze as we liked. He did this because he was embezzling, and feeding our work to his own separate start up. He thought placating us with free alcohol and a night out would delay our realization of this.
I discovered that inebriation has more to do with a person’s normal degree of emotional self-repression than any other factor — quantity of drinks, proof on alcohol consumed, body weight, water consumed between drinks, etc. The more repressed people get shit-faced on a fundamental level, and the less repressed people become impulsive, but still recognizable, versions of themselves. Justin, as you might imagine, tanked fast and hard. I didn’t change very much at all, because I can’t commit to drinking enough free Bud Lite or Coors Lite to make anything happen, and the service at the bar for actual liquor, that gets me actually drunk, was too slow to deal with.
Many interactions were had on this occasion, but the most interesting one was with Justin. I had settled easily into our pattern of treating each other as invisible, months before. But he made a real attempt to say something to me, and I made a real attempt to hear it.
It was basically this: I’m sorry I tried to get you fired. I thought you wouldn’t be any good at this job and I’d be saving everybody time. But now everyone likes you and you are good at this job, and I feel stupid.
My response was basically: Oh, that’s ok. I wasn’t very good at this job, so that’s understandable.
You might think of this as a pretty lay-down response, and maybe it was. But I don’t really believe in trying to get things from people — fair treatment, apologies, amends, explanations, closure. On those rare occasions where I have tried to get those things from people, I’ve ended up more miserable than I was before. It’s like trying to get a good haircut from a bad hairstylist: ain’t gonna happen. So what might look like an obsequious response to a serious admission of guilt was actually a conservation of emotional energy on my part, coupled with a desire to allow him the space to occupy that remorse, rather than polarizing him off against me again in a rare moment when he’d come my way of his own accord.
Justin ended up loping off into the night, like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, slightly afterwards, and of course gave me even more of a freeze-out upon our handful of future interactions. Again, introvert here, so that was fine with me.
But then the second gesture occurred.
Now, so many drivers had left that we were down to a skeleton crew, thanks to our boss selling us out and funding his own start-up, for which he would later go to prison. But we were still working, somewhat, and we had a couple company Suburbans for shuttling ourselves out to shifts and back again. It was luck of the draw, who you’d end up with in that Suburban. At the height of my season there, it might be nine or ten of us, packed in with all our gear. But on this occasion, it was only me and Justin. I mentally sighed — again, I didn’t care if he liked me or disliked me, but I disliked the sense of emotional charge. I was tired, and had just enough energy for just enough small talk to be polite until we got back to the company house.
He volunteered a perspective that surprised me, though.
It was basically this: Justin considered himself a Christian. (No shock there — 99% chance a really shut down guy who gets shit-faced on three beers is some type of Protestant. If he’s shut down but functional despite rivers of alcohol, he’s Catholic.) He was generally open to the possibility that God could appear to him in unexpected form, a kind of spiritual gotcha, and so Justin tried to conduct himself righteously at all times, in order to be found virtuous in the event.
Having given the problem of me a lot of thought, and the discomfort I had provoked in him since day one, he was now considering the possibility that I was sent to him, by God, to show him his own prejudice. He assumed the worst about me, at every turn, but now had to admit that I was a truly good person, even in the face of his unfair treatment. I had conducted myself with kindness and dignity in a situation he had purposefully made hostile for me, and I never sought revenge or became bitter.
He delivered this, or the gist of it, in halting but genuine words, and I handled it the best I could. It made me feel hideously awkward, in a way that all his passive aggression had not, which probably indicates something wrong with me but whatever.
I exited the Suburban once he put it in park and retired to my room, deciding to do my muddy laundry later, for once. The company fell apart entirely, soon after, and the handful of interactions we had were mono-syllabic.
I’ve pondered this odd, oil field sub-plot off and on, over the years. For some reason, these are the thoughts it prompts, today. They are not directly related, and don’t in themselves represent any kind of climax for this story or for myself, but they seem connected.
Feeling for truth, rather than intellectualizing it, is an invisible knack. Yet, it amplifies any skill towards which your truth-feelingness is directed; making you, in that moment, a virtuoso.
If you’d like to understand feeling for truth better, then realize you already know how to feel for its opposite. Feel for what’s false. How overt does a lie have to be, in order for you to sense it? How much time do you spend going along with it, before you pump the brakes?
When’s the last time you felt betrayed, bamboozled, or done wrong? Woundedness doesn’t come from another’s dishonesty — it comes from your having taken on that dishonesty, in an effort to keep afloat a narrative to which you’ve become committed. A narrative you’ve begun to intellectualize.
Let your intellectualizations be the snakeskins you shed along the way. Along the way to what? Feeling for truth. Feeling for truth. Slithering along on your belly and feeling for truth.