handmade sign at a very muddy cyclocross race, showing a raised middle finger and the text “we’re #2”

Not a Joiner

Published 2022-11-09

Something I have known about myself since childhood is that I am Not a Joiner.

When people say this they usually mean they are loners or introverts. That’s kind of true in my case but not exactly. I like people! I just don’t care to join formal things like clubs or sports teams or churches. Most people who are Not Joiners don’t join those things either.

I have tried! I joined a church! I joined a bicycle team! I joined the Neighborhood Association! I joined a Business Association! I went to tech meetups! I joined a volunteer group! I went to protests! None of it sticks. I go to a few meetings, do a few whatevers and then kind of nope out.

Listen: I like being useful. I like being given things to do. And I really do appreciate that people joining groups is how important useful things get done. You can’t fight a war by yourself, you need an army, and that army has to be full of Joiners. If I were drafted I could probably swallow this weirdly specific introversion and be a Temporary Joiner. But it doesn’t come naturally to me.

I notice this most acutely when I am in a crowd of people moving in unison, like at a concert, or a protest, or a sports game. I just can’t make myself move with everyone else, not without feeling like I am somehow letting my own self down.

But despite all this…somehow at age 50 I have become a member of a community. This past weekend there was a bike race in (almost literally) my backyard, sponsored by my local bike shop. Because I’ve been doing my bike-wrenching there for a decade, I’ve fallen in with some people who work at the shop, or who hang around the shop. And when a friend asks for help, of course I help. That’s how I’ve managed to volunteer for many hours every year at this bike race.

Something like this is how I wound up chaperoning a school group to Japan. Or hosting foreign-exchange teacher interns for months at a time. Or testifying at City Hall. Or circling the neighborhood during snowstorms asking all the elderly people if they need anything. I know a lot of people and some of the people sometimes ask me to do something useful and I like to be useful.

The only way this happens is that I keep doing some random thing with people, in the real world, and eventually those people become my friends and eventually friends ask each other for favors. That’s community. I couldn’t get this from a sports team, or a club, or a church. I especially couldn’t get this from “social media” or TV or something virtual.

Real community, to me, is a function of physical proximity and habituation. It took me years of living in the same town and walking the same paths to build (entirely accidentally) this community.