Eating Alone

My husband left today for yet one more summer conference.  Between the both of us, we have attended, presented, or planned four academic conferences and workshops this summer…which may be about three too many!  While I am always grateful for the professional experience and knowledge I gain at these conferences, and for an opportunity to visit with dear friends, conferences are also, simply, tiring.  And, while conference conversations during sessions or over coffee can be invigorating and inspiring, they can also be powerful avenues which cause us to feel self-conscious, inadequate, or under-appreciated.  Particularly at academically-oriented conferences, I can think of no worse idea than throwing hundreds of introverts in a schmancy conference hotel and asking them to socialize!

One conference in particular this summer (at which my husband was unable to join me), gave me much food for existential thought.  My usual comrades were absent for one reason or another, and I found myself, very frequently, alone.  Being alone can be awkward enough, but it is even worse to be hungry and alone!  As mealtimes approached, groups readily formed around me, and old friends and colleagues went off, happily, to feast and to celebrate renewed friendships.  Meanwhile, I found myself eating most breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, on my own (I’m an introvert, too, so don’t bother asking why I didn’t go up to semi-strangers and ask to join them!).  Even though I was surrounded by a community of well-meaning people, It seems that I was doomed to be eating—a necessary, life-giving activity—alone.

I know our experience of Eucharistic eating can often be this way—perhaps particularly for young adults who’ve first left college communities, or families who’ve entered a new parish after a job change or move.  Our parishes are a Image result for communion linecommunity of seemingly, friendly, like-minded people, yet so many of us eat at the Eucharistic table—alone.

I began to wonder how much I acted like one of my conference colleagues on a Sunday morning, recognizing old friends, but ignoring the newcomers sitting in the pews.  How much am I neglecting the stranger, allowing her to come to the feast of the Eucharist by herself?  How much am I ignoring the new family while I happily celebrate reuniting with friends from choir?

In the end, my eating alone at this summer conference had one bright note.  As I was pondering my situation at my first early-morning breakfast, one of the cooks came out of the kitchen with a tray of freshly baked muffins.  He was an older gentleman and, when he saw me, he stopped, paused, and asked, “Do you want a fresh muffin?  They’re just out of the oven!”  I looked skeptical and said, “I didn’t pay for that.”  He shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s on the house!”  That morning, and for the next two days, I enjoyed not only my solitary breakfast, but a moment of community—when an elderly cook offered me a muffin, and invited me to eat without cost (Isaiah 55:1).

Interestingly, it was someone, seemingly on the margins, who helped me to consider how I might be marginalizing others—or how I might invite others to eat well, and delight in rich fare (Isaiah 55:2).

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5 comments

  1. Now I want a muffin!

    You don’t have to be an introvert to be shut out of the social circles around you. It happened to me this past holiday season, at a get-together (of liturgical types, no less) in which my usual “support network” didn’t make it, and I was sort of the only guy there without a group to hang with. I tried for a while to find a way to latch onto some groups, then gave up and went home.

    At the risk of sounding self-pitying, I think clergy can be subject to the sort of stranger-in-a-crowd syndrome you describe. Once you’re pegged as a member of the clergy, you’re sort of viewed as an “other” rather than a normal person. Most people, after all, typically don’t hang out with members of the clergy. (And a goodly number of those who do socialize with clergy are sort of followers rather than peers, if that makes sense). I’m sure this is one reason that priests and similar folks tend to stick together – in a sense, they’re all they’ve got.

  2. I quite like eating alone… not always, but when traveling (or when groceries don’t magically appear in my fridge and there’s a little fancy pizza place within walking distance of my home) I find it a good time to think things over in peace. Sometimes I’ll catch up on some reading on my phone or watch a sporting event.

    I’ve been to Mass many places and have never really felt like I do when I eat alone. Mass always seems like a communal thing to me – whether a TLM or a rather progressive parish with all the “trimmings” of welcoming.

  3. Thank you for this reflection, Kathy. In the past few months I have transitioned from a familiar home, circle of friends, and beloved colleagues, to a place where I know no one, to an enormously complex hospital filled with strangers. I am slowly becoming acclimated here. I decided to reach out and introduce myself to the young woman who empties the trash in my office every morning. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to her, “Hello, Jerry” each morning. She teaches me that these small moments of welcome can make all the difference.

  4. What a lovely reflection, Katie. As a fellow introvert, I appreciate your sentiments and experience. And thank you for the reflection on the cook – and his lovely invitation to eat without cost!

  5. I think that every introvert should read “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. A strategy that she recommends is developing an “extrovert persona” in which you become something of an actor taking on the role of an extrovert. I’ve made myself sit down with semi-strangers at meals or at parties, introduce myself and say “I really don’t know anybody here” and have found that not only did I survive the process but on occasion discovered a fellow introvert relieved to have somebody reach out.

    Of course, like most introverts I am 1000% comfortable eating by myself, observing others at the party, etc. But in liturgical or non-liturgical contexts, this is not really discipleship, or even very good humaning.

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