Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Bowling Alone

It's a great title, isn't it? I have yet to read the book, but the title completely captures the increasing sense I've had over the last several years of being detached from any kind of healthy community involvement.

Some of the reasons for this are obvious:
  • I live in a tiny town. When I say tiny, I mean tiny but rural and spread out, without a real vibrant center.
  • I have no children. No meeting parents of friends, no boy or girl scouts, no sports, et cetera.
  • I don't go to church. I am not an atheist, and I was fortunate enough to grow up in the UCC... so what religious indoctrination I had was more about being a good person than about going to hell. Enough on that for now.
  • For nearly four years now I've commuted some 25 miles to work, effectively cleaving my work life from my personal life (or at least from my home life.) This has recently changed, thankfully.
Other reasons might be less obvious, at least to other people. First and foremost, I am not particularly a joiner. Negative social experiences during elementary, junior, and high school have left me predisposed to be wary around cliques of any kind, and experiences as a docent at an architectural landmark in the 1990's reinforced my aversion.

The docent gig was fun at first, but eventually the demands outpaced the rewards and I lost interest in donating my time to an organization that didn't seem to appreciate it, and just kept asking for more and more of it. That has really stuck with me, along with my memories of being conscripted by my parents to the youth soccer program for a number of years; while I do remember having fun, I also remember there being a lot of weekends where I would much rather have sat in front of my Commodore 64 than drive three towns over to lose a game while zealous parents screamed from the sidelines.

That knowledge that involvement in any organized, socially functioning group is occasionally going to demand my precious time when I'd rather not give it has steered me away from joining any kind of group that meets regularly and schedules weekend activities. It's a selfish attitude that I'm not very happy about, and I am optimistic that I won't be so fiercely protective of my time now that I am not spending 1.5-2 hours a day driving to and from work. As I keep telling people, "I'm going to be looking for excuses to get out of the house!"

So how do I get involved? There was a brief period of time when I thought about getting involved in the Boy Scouts again, this time as an adult leader in some capacity. Certainly not a Scoutmaster, but maybe an assistant or something. That still has some attraction to me, although I do have a bit of a problem with the religious discrimination of the BSA, and then there would also be the perceived weirdness of a grown man with no children hanging around the boys.

That idea of "Boy Scouts for grown-ups" has gotten me thinking pretty seriously about old-fashioned fraternal organizations like the Elks, Odd Fellows, and of course the Masons. I need to do a lot of comparative research... Like most people my age and younger, I have a stereotypical mental picture of these groups: old guys smoking cheap cigars and throwing the occaisional spaghetti supper. My impression of the Masons is a little bit different. Thankfully, I never got any conspiracy-laden, baphomet-worshipping-satanist-world-domination-theory anti-masonry laid on me growing up... rather, my stereotypical mental picture of the Masons comes from my dad's dismissal of the group as a bunch of guys with their silly little secret rituals, who don't really do much of anything other than talk about how great their secret rituals are.

I guess you could say I've started my research with the Masons, having become somewhat fascinated over the last few days. I have to say, the various forum and weblog posts I've read from members don't do a whole lot to dispel my "Isn't being a Mason great?" stereotype. Everyone talks about how great the sense of fraternity is and how great it is to be a Mason, but they don't really say why. Of course, part of the reason for that is that they're not allowed to talk about some of the "whys", but it still sets off my bullshit detector a little bit.

Having gone through a lot of Cub Scout and Boy Scout ritual (Arrow of Light, merit badge ceremonies, honor courts, weather beads, and other stuff I probably don't even remember now) and always having secretly wished I'd gotten into the Order of the Arrow (I never did, and always felt a little ashamed that by fellow scouts never thought of me as a model scout, or someone they could count on in an emergency, which is how the anonymous elections were framed in my troop), I can easily imagine geeking out on Freemasonry's rich symbolism, language, and ritual. I mean, you can't read the phrase "32nd degree Mason of the Scottish Rite" without being at least a little curious.

I find the Masons' mission of personal betterment (and the resulting betterment of the community) through symbolic teaching very attractive. The Odd Fellows and the Elks do plenty of good community work, of course, but I don't necessarily want to just be the guy flipping hamburgers in the fundraising booth at the carnival, or making a dutiful monthly hospital or nursing home visit. Both of those things are certainly worthy pursuits that can't help but make a man a better person, but it's almost like the betterment is a side product. The Masonic message (as I understand it so far) of making society better by starting with yourself feels more correct to me.

So the question about Freemasonry is: Would I be willing to turn down my bullshit detector a little bit for the sake of the rituals, recognizing that they have their place and hopefully finding a lodge that doesn't overdo it? There's no way to know what exactly the "moral teachings" are and if I buy into them without actually joining, so I'm not going to worry about that at this point. I have this sense that there must be something to the whole thing beyond the ritual, but then again, who knows? Belonging to an exclusive group with a mysterious air about it could be enough to keep it going for a long, long time.

Then the other question about Freemasonry is: What would my dear wife think? I've bounced the "I wish there was Boy Scouts for Grownups" lament off of her a couple of times, and it was actually she who mentioned looking into the Elks or a similar group... so while she may do a certain amount of eye-rolling when it comes to boys and their clubs, she recognizes the social and spiritual value of that sense of community I've been missing. Would she be weirded out if I pursued Freemasonry? Would she think it was a silly idea? Maybe a little of both. Maybe not! While we are entirely open and honest with one another, we don't often venture into deep personal territory when it comes to religion or philosophy. I certainly haven't gotten this far into any discussion about the Masons with her, or let on that I'm anywhere near as interested as I am.

We can both be fairly cynical when it comes to other people, their motives, and their behaviors. For me to take seriously the pageant and secrecy surrounding the Masons would be a bit of a departure. I don't think it would be a drastic one, but it could definitely be one of those, "Oh! I didn't know that about you" moments that become increasingly rare as the years go by.

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