Burn or get burned

Those who were in ear or eyeshot of the Park Blocks a couple of Fridays ago probably noticed the commotion caused by street preachers who were occupying the area. This is not a new sight; street preachers show up from time to time, but this time it was a completely different experience for me.

My encounters with street preachers generally involve me running to the closest library corner for coffee, quiet time and emotional debriefing. Coming from a personal and spiritual history that has involved many evangelical churches, existential crises and general anxiety, I am very triggered by these sign-wielding, adversarial, circular-thinking individuals who seem to have the uncanny ability to turn everything into a yelling match in under five minutes. As a socially anxious person who is uncomfortable with both larger crowds and general unrest, I find the whole environment that happens when these folks show up to be saddening. Sometimes I do not know what I find more upsetting, the misled nature of the angry preacher or the hoards of students whipping out their smartphones and taking photos (#AngryManWithSign).

But this specific encounter was different for me. I was in a rare mood and had been making attempts to be more spontaneous, doing things that were outside of my comfort zone, so I walked up to the five or so preachers who were surrounded by a larger group of students.

After successfully waiting out the inevitable pressing anxiety caused by the crowd, the anger and the smartphone filming, I started to think about talking to the preachers. The thing about introversion, coupled with social anxiety, is that by the time you contemplate the thousands of questions or responses you might have for any given comment, the moment to speak has already passed. This experience only increases the desire to have your voice heard, which can be hard when you are a naturally quiet person in such a large, loud environment.
However, I began to feel an increased need to be diplomatic. I felt truly saddened for these preachers; I believe that whatever life changing, religious experience they might have had has been bastardized by an ugly us-verses-the-world mentality. I also felt deeply for those who stood with me in opposition to them, who often seemed to succumb to anger. But still, with empathy and a need to understand both sides, combined with a constant, annoying need to see harmony (#ISFJ), I felt an increasingly pressing need to enter the dialogue with a calming presence.

I approached one of the preachers with questions of doctrine; there were phrases written on his sign that I was legitimately curious about. But the man with the sign seemed to have no interest in discussing the sign that he wielded. It seemed that he was ready to argue before I had even gotten halfway through my question. That’s the thing about angry, sign-waving, primitive Baptist evangelicals: They are under the impression that they are there for a purpose, and any straying from this would be straying from their message (a crime punishable by guilt in their world).

This protesting had been going on for quite a while, and even simply asking them for the time would have likely ended in someone feeling invalidated. I had a burning desire to maintain the calm that I held onto with conviction, but sign man was ready for battle and any real discussion was a lost cause. The thing about being socially anxious is it makes you timid, and being timid makes you get interrupted (#invalidated). When I tried to speak to the leader of the group, I was either interrupted by him or a louder voice from the crowd.

It seemed that, given his unwillingness to have a real conversation, my best course of action at this point was to speak with fellow classmates who were near me. This also proved to be difficult. Within the commotion, I perceived that the root of unrest was a general feeling of sadness. I had a deep desire to discuss these feelings with someone; surely others around me would need to debrief from this. However, it seemed the commotion caused by the preachers had created an environment that made emotional expression impossible. Their adversarial qualities had spread like the plague through the opposition, making real, honest discussion hard to come by.

I should note, I understand the anger. I understand why it is sometimes necessary to fight fire with fire in terms of protest. It is just that a situation such as this can sometimes stray from the root of the problem.

Despite feeling like I had no voice in this situation, I walked away from it feeling more confident than I thought I would have. Though I was unsuccessful in having a helpful conversation with the street preachers (something it seems they are maybe not capable of), I did manage to talk to another student before I left. I was able to mutually express with someone how absurd the whole thing was. I was able to finally articulate with someone my thoughts on how upsetting the whole situation felt.

Perhaps in situations where we are visited by individuals or groups who are triggering to us the healthiest thing we can do is discuss it with one another, sharing personal experiences, discussing the things we have learned in our studies and not giving in to the irrationality that comes when we yell back and forth. Of course, when there is a need to approach someone who is being disruptive to our campus environment, perhaps it may be better to approach calmly, speak rationally, and shake the dust off our feet and walk away should our legitimate attempt at conversation be met with yelling.

Though I could be wrong, it might be my social anxiety doing the talking.

-Christopher Stauffer