The Cage and The Container

“I’m sorry I was late to your party. I didn’t want to come.”

A couple of years ago, there was a trend of introvert jokes on social media. The underlying theme was that socializing is a chore. When the lockdowns started, there were humorous memes going around about how “Introverts should check on their extravert friends.” Many people were happy to embrace the lockdowns as an opportunity not to leave the house.

But something funny happened on the way to the hermitage. People got lonely. They wanted to socialize again. They were experiencing the cognitive dissonance of desire for companionship and the relentless narrative that something horrible would happen if they indulged such selfish whims. What happens when you break people’s brains?

It looks like this:

My cousin who made a last-minute contingency for his wedding that meant that I could not attend unless I agreed to conditions that were intolerable, partly because they were unacceptable but primarily because they were premised on me and my family being a perceived threat to other attendees.

A relative I approached in the parking lot after my grandmother’s memorial service who threw up her arms in protest and said, “I can’t hug you because you’re unvaccinated!” (I don’t remember discussing my medical history with this person, by the way,) as if I were some unclean thing, only barely tolerated because my parents advocated for my presence.

Is this the behavior of healthy, socially-adjusted people? Is this how human beings act when they are relaxed and integrated into a functional culture?

Or is this the way humans might act if they’ve been subjected to months of anxiety and abuse and gaslighting to the point where they have completely forgotten the purpose of life, and are clinging desperately to an externally-constructed set of mores and rituals developed to keep their psyches on life support when they’ve lost their bearings? They are people who have been groomed to identify a politically weak group as an enemy so they won’t turn their anxiety on the true perpetrators of their pain. They have been told their must be an out-group in order to make their in-group status safe.

In ancient times, cities had walls. Socrates chose to die rather than to flee his city; for the ancient Greeks, the loss of the polis was a kind of death. When you must conform or die, you are not free. In bravery, you step outside, but when you do, you step out alone.

That is not community. That is a cage.


Maybe I’ve been one of those people who didn’t want to go to the party, but that was when I could go to the grocery store and see a human face, rather than a red-faced cashier with a rag taught across her mouth like a bandage on a sucking wound, or the angry and frightened eyes of a fellow shopper making a detour through the kiwis in order to avoid passing within six feet of me. If the community I thought I had was dissolving, or revealing itself to never have been my home at all, then where could I go to find strangers who would smile at me?

I might have to allow them to stop being strange; to become familiar. I might have to allow them to see me. I might have to risk the vulnerability of relationships, even as the relentless drums of war beat a steady warning: “You can’t be you and still be held; you must choose between honesty and belonging.”

Twenty years ago, a friend said to me on the way to a party, “maybe we can get there before you start talking about when you’re leaving.” There’s safety in staying alone; you know where the exits are, you have all the control. And there’s safety in remaining apart from relationships; how can I be courageous enough to stand up to the crowd, knowing that I risk exile, if I become attached to something that can be taken away?

There is another option. It does not need to be a cage. I can, instead, find a container. And surrender to the offering.

I drew you one picture of what happened when people acquiesced to being walled off from each other, or embraced it out of fear. Not everyone accepted this rewiring. It also looked like this:

People who had never met before, first by the twos and threes, then the dozens, then the hundreds, began to seek each other out. People who had not been looking for new friends and family, who hadn’t realized their relationships and communities were castles made of sand, went to meetings and parties knowing no one, but knowing that they would be treated with respect. They wouldn’t be treated as diseased. They wouldn’t be treated as exiles.

They went to find a city, not with walls, but with gardens. They went to find the fountains, and the parks.

I went to find these things. I went in desperation, in anger, in fear, but also in hope. I decided that the risk of going out in the evenings, of going out among unfamiliar faces, was worth the possibility of finding a place where I could be myself, warts and all, and allow others to be themselves. I can do this knowing that none of us are perfect and all of us are traumatized, but if we want a better world than the one we discovered is being built for us, we better get together and build, or rediscover, it for ourselves.

I overcame my fear of the cage, and found the container.

The Heart of the Matter