Are You Looking at Me?
A strange thing happened on the way to work this morning. A blue minivan came flying up beside me on the highway and then abruptly slammed on the brakes to match my speed. I glanced over, puzzled. Was it a friend trying to get my attention? Had I cut this person off? Was my fuel cap open and flapping in the wind? My gaze was met by a woman and (I assumed) her young son in the passenger seat. She was leaning across him, gesturing wildly at me, pointing at me with two fingers, seeming to indicate that she was watching me. Or something. I really don’t know. I stared at her, more bewildered than before. Before I knew it, she had raced off ahead of me.
She very deliberately slowed down at the next light allowing me to pass her as I moved into the turning lane. Before I knew it, she was right beside me again, this time indicating that I should roll down my window. She was quite a sight. Bleach blonde hair, heavy makeup. Her clothing was, shall we say, not up to the challenges of a December morning? She had the look of someone who was desperately fighting the onset of middle age and mostly losing. I tentatively lowered my window, still more than a little puzzled about what, exactly, was going on.
“Hey, are you looking at me?” I sat there for a few uncomprehending seconds. This was becoming very strange. I decided to go for humour. “You mean right now? Because then, yes” (smart guy, right?). She laughed.
“No, I mean were you staring at me back there? Because my kid said you were staring at me and I wasn’t sure. You know, it’s ok if you were, but I just wanna know.”
Was this a prank? Was she on something? I literally had no idea what was going on.
“No, I wasn’t staring at you,” I said. The light turned green ahead of us. She laughed, and as she pulled ahead of me said, “Well, that’s what my kid said, but you know… it’s ok if you were.”
I must have had a blank and thoroughly confused look on my face as she drove off. I filed it in the “inexplicable things that happen in this weird world” category in my brain and went on with my day.
Later that day, I sat down for coffee with a stranger who had asked to speak with a pastor. I had visions of a reasonably stimulating conversation in mind as I pulled into the café parking lot. Those visions were soon rudely dispelled. I was almost immediately waist-deep in the quagmire of a bizarre and incoherent assemblage of loose impressions, well-rehearsed grievances, exaggerations, impossibilities, and isolated fragments of what sounded like a very troubled life. It was a veritable torrent of seemingly random commentary that had virtually nothing to do with God or church or anything that you might conceivably want to speak with a pastor about. On and on and on they went.
Again, I found myself wondering… Is this person on something? What on earth is going on here? The entire conversation monologue seemed to be an extended version of the question blurted out by the woman on the road earlier today: Are you looking at me? Because, you know, it’s ok if you are.
It was quite obvious about two minutes into my time with this person that they were just desperately, desperately lonely. They almost certainly had few (if any) people in their life who would listen to them, who would take the time to actually see them. There were quite likely addiction and or mental health issues at play in the whole scenario. There was rather obviously some social anxiety issues—intermittent eye contact, frequent interrupting, inability to sustain a thread of conversation. But the overwhelming impression I got was that this was just a person who was socially isolated and wanted to be noticed.
On Saturday morning, I’m participating in a small pastor’s forum for a group of young adults in our city. They want to know about the nature of pastoral ministry, the ups, the downs, the joys and challenges of professional ministry. I think that if there’s anything I’ve been surprised by over the eleven or so years I’ve been a pastor it is the crushing loneliness experienced by so many people, and the deep desire to be seen, to be known, to find a place of belonging.
When I entered ministry, I probably had a few naïve notions about the church being a place of robust theological engagement, a space for the sustained consideration of weighty existential matters. There is some of this, it’s true, and I am grateful for it. But there’s also just an awful lot of variations of the question I strangely encountered on my morning commute: Are you looking at me?! Please look at me?! Nobody else will look at me… Will you look at me?! Please, for the love of God, look at me!!!
I will probably tell these young adults that pastors are often on the front lines of profound human need. It can be confusing and awkward, smelly and rude. It can be incoherent and intractable. It can be maddening and heartbreaking. It can seem unending, probably because, well, it is. Particularly in a cultural context as unmoored as ours is, and which sends such an unrelenting series of mixed messages about who we are and what we are for, which sets us up for failure in so many ways.
I will probably tell them that when I started in ministry, I probably thought of the role of “pastor” as, in some sense, being something like a resident theologian. And that I still think it is. Sorta. Sometimes. But at least as often as not, people don’t care that much about theology. They’re just looking for a friend. Or someone to vent/unload in the general direction of. Or, at the very least, someone to just sit there and listen to them for a few minutes. I will, come to think of it, tell them that sometimes that’s what it means to be a resident theologian.