I figured I should probably get a haircut and buy a cell phone to treat my problems with anxiety. At that point in my life, I had long hair, down past my shoulders. It was named Rodolfo. I hadn't cut it since the start of the summer I spent in Philadelphia, teaching kids to eat vegetables, this was a novel idea to them. I suppose that I had grown the long hair to make a statement, but I still don't know what that statement was supposed to be. I think it looked like the sort of hair that someone who cared about social justice might have, and I wanted to care about social justice.
I didn't own a cell phone because of a story my dad tells. He talks about how, back when people wrote with quill pens, a writer would have to take a break at the end of writing a line to dip the pen in an inkwell. During this little break, just a fraction of a second of not-writing, the writer would have rest. Ever since we started using ball-point pens we would just keep writing, and we lost that little bit of rest. It used to be that you had a break in dealing with someone as you waited for your letter to get to them and theirs to get to you, and telegraphs took that break away. You could have a break from answering the phone if you were away from home, until cell phones were invented. Now, people are expected to be available, on the phone, at all times. I would tell this story whenever I would explain why I didn't have a cell phone.
It's a nice story to tell while at a party or while driving around with a friend, it's a meaningful story about how technology changes our lives.
I was feeling anxious, I had had problems with anxiety for almost a year, so I looked up anxiety about Wikipedia and I found a related article about existential angst and decided that that's what was bothering me: I was overwhelmed with how to be defined, how to have an identity. I realized that I was telling the story about the cell phones and quill pens not because I didn't want a cell phone, but because I liked telling the story. Actually, I didn't even like the story that much, but I was afraid that if I got a cell phone, everyone that I had told the story to would think I'm inauthentic, which is a big word for fake.
My hair, Rodolfo, got a lot of attention, and I was afraid that if I cut it, people might not recognize me. I mean, my friends would be able to tell that it's still me, by my prominent nose and well-defined cheekbones, I wasn't afraid that I'd walk in the door and people wouldn't know that I'm Alex; I was afraid that people would stop giving me the extra attention for having my friend, Rodolfo, living on top of my head.
Not only that, but a couple of people had given me negative comments about Rodolfo, saying that he was unkempt, which he was. I didn't want to keep the hair, it was a big tangled mat but I didn't want to admit that I didn't actually like my long hair anymore.
Previously, I had been in a Bible study with Rodolfo's most ardent critic, Alan; we were studying faith. I complained that I didn't feel like I knew how to make friends with non-Christians. Do they have parties or something? Alan told me, "Dude, it's no big deal, just wander around the apartments, walk in one with an open door, and grab a cup." "Do I need to bring anything?" "Nah, dude, just show up." Alan calls everyone dude.
(You must understand that at UMBC, the apartments have an ill reputation. The students who live in apartments move in on the day before the semester starts, they move in on a Tuesday morning. By Tuesday night at nine, an ambulance has arrived to give a student a ride to St Agnes Hospital for treatment for alcohol poisoning. The apartments are three-storey brick structures that were constructed as "temporary buildings" four decades ago. I was bewildered as to why anyone would want to live in them until I realized that rules against underage drinking and public debauchery are more thoroughly enforced in the dorms than in the apartments.)
I figured the only way to deal with my anxiety about what everyone, including Alan, thought of Rodolfo was to get a haircut. I donated Rodolfo to Locks of Love; I'm sure there is a child somewhere with a wig with many split ends. Sure enough, no one, not even Alan, hassled me about changing my mind about Rodolfo's merits.
I bought a cell phone, a cheap Virgin Mobile with a pay-as-you-go plan, I wasn't sure what would happen if I bought a cell phone. I didn't want to sign a contract on a new lifestyle.
I was realizing that a lot of the things I was doing, I wasn't doing because I liked them, but precisely because they made me anxious: I had some anxiety with Rodolfo on my head, but just thinking about Rodolfo, to the point where I could decide what to do with him, made me more anxious. I was enduring two dozen sources of anxiety in my life, rather than asking what to do with them one by one.
My existential crisis started with cheap things, like buying a cell phone and donating Rodolfo to an alopecia patient, but as I realized that I liked having a cell phone and that I liked not having a spare identity as a hat, I might want to try some new things and abandon some old things. I felt release and relief as I took these small, concrete steps, and I wanted more freedom.
At this point in my life, I would often walk around on the hills of our campus to talk to God. Our campus has a lot of hills. I would walk up the hill with a lot of fear or frustration and confusion, and walk down the hill with some sort of peace and direction, with prayer happening in the middle.
Late one Friday night, a little before midnight, during this existential crisis, I decided to wander around the apartments. I had planned on walking up one of my regular hills, but I thought that, perhaps, as I was rethinking my place in the universe, I might try something different, I might try Alan's idea of getting to know non-Christians by finding them in their natural habitat. I might get some enlightenment that way.
Out front of one apartment, I ran into a guy who I'd seen perform at a big theater event at UMBC. I'd heard from a friend in his major that he'd recently gotten rejected for an honor in the theater department. He's very talented as an actor, but, the word is, he didn't do much bookwork and that cost him. I said hi to him, but he had had a couple of drinks and just grinned and laughed a lot.
Another guy offered me some Pabst Blue Ribbon. I was underage at this point. Other beers, I knew from television commercials. All that I knew of Pabst Blue Ribbon is what a friend from California had told me, that PBR is not so much a drinking beer as a get-drunk beer. This guy, offering me the beer, was yelling about how he was going to get totally wasted, as if this was a good thing. He was very excited, but I don't know that he was happy.
I never entered any of the apartments that night, I just wandered around, watching people, and feeling painfully confused. Who was I, really? What does that mean? Why is that picnic table upside down? What should my job be? Where should I live? Who should my friends be?
The apartments are on a woody hill, and there is a clearing in the center of several of them, a little service road forms a circle in this area. There are some grills, not good grills, the sort of grills you see at state parks, grills designed for unstealability. People would occasionally grill hot dogs out there. The RA's would give you charcoal if you asked. People would sit at picnic tables and eat food that was rarely any better than the dining hall would make it, and for more trouble, they would do this to have the experience of a cook-out.
I sat at one of the picnic tables, the other was upside down. A student walked up near me, stumbling. I know a trick to help with talking to strangers: when they ask you how you're doing, you tell them the truth. That's how the conversation with Rob began. I asked him how he was doing, as he hobbled, swaying, past my picnic table, and he said "Fine, how are you?" and I said, "I don't know. I'm doing a lot of things because I thought my friends want me to rather than because I really want to, and I feel anxious and I don't know what to do."
"So get new friends," he said, sitting down. He was rambling, he'd start sentences and trail off before he started the predicate. "That picnic table, why is it upside down?" I had seen the upside down picnic table before, but not really noticed it, I just assumed it was inverted in some frat boy prank.
In InterVarsity, I learned that it's best not to evangelize by telling people up front that they're sinners and need to accept Jesus to be saved. It's better to make friends with them, and learn to care about them. Then, eventually, somehow, they realize that your love is truly Christian charity, or they see that you're a good example, or they ask you questions or you ask them questions, and they realize they're in need of a relationship with Jesus. They might not realize that they need Jesus to atone for their sins, they might just need Jesus to help them on this next exam, that's okay. I had tried every form of evangelism that didn't require friendship with the subject; I figured I would try making friends, and not worry about immediate results and see what happened.
Following good evangelism technique, I sat and listened to drunk Rob rambling. After a while, another walked up, Lisa. She had tattoos and wore a bandana and had a nose ring. I could tell that she cared about social justice. She was an environmentalist.
I was trying to get Rob to talk about God and Lisa told me about how she doesn't think that God is this man in the sky, she thinks that God is in everything, there's God in you and me and animals and plants and rocks. She told me that when she feels lonely, she goes outside and finds a tree to talk to.
She told us about how she's a vegetarian, she doesn't want to eat other living beings. I asked her about free range chicken and she said, "Sometimes, free range isn't so free range." She explained that chickens are raised in barns with no room to move around, the barns would just have one window, and that that these chickens are sold as "free range". They have their beaks cut off so they don't peck each other to death.
"Why would anyone do that to chickens?" I asked. "Why don't more people care?" asked Lisa. "And why is that picnic table upside down?" asked Rob.
Our conversations meandered. I was uncomfortable. I was talking with two non-Christians at the apartments, in the middle of the night, and I didn't know what to say to them, let alone what to do about my own problems. Rob got up several times that night to go pee, not in a bathroom, he'd pee on the closest tree.
Sometimes, while sitting with us, he'd slip his hand down his trousers, as if he forgot that Lisa and I were there, or as if he knew and didn't care. I didn't know what to say about that.
Lisa was telling us about how beautiful it is that everything is connected, everything has God in it. She told us about dolphins. "Dolphins are $&*@ing smart." Rob said, displaying his Discovery Channel knowledge of marine mammals. Lisa told us about how dolphins have rescued swimmers, how they like swimming with people. She told us that sometimes dolphins have sex with people. "So, like, a girl dolphin can get a guy off?" Rob asked, enthused. Lisa told Rob about the ways in which sex with dolphins is better than sex with people.
I asked Lisa what she thought of Jesus. "I don't think he was the son of God or anything," then, her eyes lit up, "I think he was a revolutionary!"
We kept talking, until it started to get light, it wasn't so much a sunrise as the whole dome of the sky getting brighter. We asked big questions together. How do we know what right and wrong are? Who is God? Why is that picnic table upside down? Who is Jesus? Who am I? What should I be up to?
A couple of weeks later, I drank my first bottle of beer on my twenty-first birthday. A month after that, I became a vegetarian. I found that Rob had some good advice for me, too, "Get new friends." I was a lot less anxious.