Sitting in the Balcony at Church

amywink February 7th, 2018

As an educator of thirty years, I have always paid attention the dynamics of the classroom that impacts our learning community. Trouble from the back row can trouble in the entire class; an extrovert in the front row can make the rest of the class disappear; chatting close friends makes a professor want to use the first grade question “Do I need to separate the two of you?” The quietest student may sit up front or way in the back, and may have the most brilliant answers that I want to draw out for everyone to hear. I do not have a seating chart and remember my students by their writing projects and personalities, not their seats in class. But generally, students’ choice of seating is relatively benign. Some students always sit in the same place; some students are nomads. The trouble comes when a nomad takes someone who has a permanent position and the student who has lost the place seems bewildered and irked at the same time.

I get that. Completely.

Of course, I never have to worry about where to sit in class because I am at the head of it. Not so in church, thank the dear Lord. In church, I do not have to be the professor. In church, I walk up the steps to what I have described as the introvert’s balcony, where my introvert friend Caroline also sits (and apparently has for her life at this church). We do not always sit together, which is likely a good thing as we do not want to risk being separated if we chat and laugh, like first grade friends (and her mother has sternly looked at us in an attempt to discipline us). It is not a spot of invisibility as I have noticed when looking up into the balcony when I usher. I know because the pastors have mentioned knowing exactly where I sit. That is mildly disconcerting but I’m coping with being visible in this different setting and also learning how to be visible. If my intent was really to hide, I’d be better off choosing the back row of the first floor, where others block people’s vision and the dim light helps (but since I just revealed that, someone is bound to look for me there if I am suddenly missing at church).

I never much thought about where I sit as anything significant to others but recently people have mentioned, curiously and kindly, where I sit. Someone described me as a “Front Row Student” which I wasn’t sure was good or bad (”good” she said when I asked, she “loved Front Row Students.”) As a student, I was never on the front row). When I shifted seats in Disciple study, someone said “oh no, you sit here!” so kindly I felt I’d made a mistake in moving and the next class I went back to that seat. I felt a great relief just recently when someone welcomed me to take a seat “right here” as a sign of belonging in a moment when I felt I might be out of place. But I am just coming into this community, becoming a member, and also learning to be part of it and I am often surprised by the welcome, having been so long in the wilderness. How I think about myself is not what others see and I am working on reconciling those differing versions to learn more about who I actually am.

But my seat in the church balcony has garnered increased interest as I have become more public, more known, in church. Someone sat in my usual seat recently and noticed “Oh, I’ve taken your seat!” and I simply moved down the row (after a moment of bewilderment, just like my own students!). But after that incident, suddenly questions abound “Is that where you sit? Why do you sit in the balcony if you are afraid of heights?” I’m not upset or offended by these questions, mostly I’m amused by my own surprise at being noticed because it runs directly counter to inner sense of who I am in public. My easiest answer is that I sit there because my friend Caroline who also sits there, my actual answer is far more complicated.

When I returned to church last year, I came to grieve my mother, to listen to music she used to play, and I needed the quiet space of the balcony to be alone with that grief while simultaneously attending church, a place created by people–like the game we played as children with our clasped and interlocked hands. I was recovering my life as well, after a long period of burnout. I wanted to be cautious because I was still easily overwhelmed. How exactly could I attend a large church as a highly sensitive introvert in the first year of grief? The last time I had gone to a church, I was assaulted by the fellowshipping enthusiasm of the members. They didn’t mean any harm, but it’s best not to rush at a person the first time you see them at church. Caroline was my foil my first day (and she did not sit by me) and after the service, she introduced me, quietly, to a few people, and they quietly welcomed me.

People assume a quiet person is shy but it’s not shyness (I’m not afraid of people. I enjoy most people) nor social anxiety (I mostly don’t care what people think, though I do prefer to avoid making giant public mistakes). My quiet is, instead, reserve. As a sensitive introvert, I reserve the energy I have to cope with the energy of others. Energetic people, usually extroverts, can be overpowering to a person who is open to the energy of another. I have become anxious in the company of anxious people though I was not myself anxious, or fearful when I am not afraid. I have simply absorbed, or sensed the energy of others, like an electric current. I have had to move a slight distance from some, closer to others, to alleviate whatever feeling I’ve absorbed. I move in whatever direction until the sensation calms. I have extrovert friends–I actually like some of them very much but I can only take that kind of energy if I am prepared and only for a limited time, or I am drained to exhaustion. Some of my extroverted friends are also highly sensitive and that always makes for an interesting combination as we sense each other in different ways. I can also tell when a person is closed to me.

I learned this about myself most profoundly with my mare, Blessing, who arrived in my life in June of 2010. I had always been aware of my perceptive abilities, but her extremely sensitive presence made for electricity between us that has been both amazing and problematic. When she first arrived as a two-year-old, I walked her toward the pasture to introduce her to the other horses. When another mare raced to the fence from behind the screen of trees, a bolt came off of Blessing so powerful I felt I had been hit and hit hard, like she’d slammed against me. And yet, I was not hit. She had bolted in place, with me still 2 feet from her, standing safely with the lead rope in my hand after I opened my eyes again. This energy is what triggers a physical bolt when horses signal each other that the herd needs to run. In humans, we call it the startle reflex (a heightened startle reflex can be huge problem in anxiety disorders and so can the numbing of it.) It’s the same kind of energy that flocks of birds use in flight, what we call murmuration. I understand entirely why it’s called a bolt because that is exactly what it felt like, a bolt of energy.

When I first came to church, I was still easily exhausted by the presence of others. I was working on returning to public life, entering community, at least as well as I could. I knew where some of my limits were and I was finding out how much I could stretch them. Some limits didn’t reveal themselves until I ran right up against them, suddenly entangled. But with practice, I have been able to remain open to encounter without becoming exhausted by it. I have managed to develop a layer of resilience in the silence that I maintain in my private life, silence that I didn’t have for a long, long time.) Now, I can usher without being wiped out the entire next day (I do have to position myself at the back of the church to create a little boundary against the overwhelming energy I feel there). While I enjoy those days, I am also not engaged the same way in the service because I have created that boundary, a shield. I have sat downstairs and enjoyed the service but it takes a kind of subconscious, energetic work to do so. I enjoy engaging with others, but it does take energy, of which I have a finite amount–some days more, some days less. I am less and less exhausted but I still need to keep something in reserve.

So, I sit in the balcony, above and a slight distant from energy of everyone, above the music that rises beautifully from the choir, in the space where I do not have to spend my energy to keep feeling at a safe distance.

I sit in the balcony so I can be open, so I can simple be.

This is where I can be found.

This is where I am.

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