The Portuguese man-of-war is a very curious creature. It is not a man, it is not Portuguese, and probably has little respect for geopolitical boundaries anyway.
No, I find the man-of-war particularly disturbing because it ISN’T EVEN A REAL ANIMAL, GUYS. It’s like, four DIFFERENT teeny tiny animals that have been living in perfect harmony for so long that they can’t even function on their own anymore, like some twisted commune of dirty hippies who never left the seventies and rely on each other for everything in life.
There are the little derpety-derp animals on the top that form the gas bladder (ew), which bobs on the surface of the ocean and terrifies everyone. Underneath this are the 3 other types of animals that make up the lurky-and-also-poisonous tentacles that can grow UP TO 160 FEET LONG (this is so not okay, but no one asked me, so I’ll leave my opinions of these monsters to myself. But really. Horrific!).
On a more philosophical note, what if one of those little creatures, if they were to hypothetically possess free will, brainpower, and a range of emotion allowing for independent decision-making, decided he didn’t want to be part of this happy-murder club anymore? He’d die, instantly. He would starve, unable to fend for himself, because he is absolutely useless at acquiring food and making more copies of himself without his hippie brothers.
The science part of me thinks this is really cool. The human part of me thinks this is odd. The me part of me finds this ridiculous, because everyone should have the right to leave a team if they’re not interested in the game.
Despite my highly-conflicted feelings on the subject, in the man-of-war I see a strangely valuable allegory.
I am an introvert. I do have a fairly long list of people I deeply love and care about, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exhaust me in high doses. And those are the people I know well and enjoy being around! Can you imagine what it’s like with strangers or those I dislike? (just kidding. I like everyone, always. Yes. That’s it. . . )
But I digress. I am an introvert, and part of being an introvert (at least when you’re me!) is convincing yourself that you don’t really need social activity to lead a fulfilling life. I like to think that I’d be completely happy sitting in a quiet classroom, silently listening to a professor lecturing as I take notes. Then going to work, where I’d cut brownies in solitude and send myself home after four hours or so, to homework, netflix, and by-myself internet time where I’d write blog posts just for me to read.
And guess what? There are three fatal flaws in this life plan:
1) I love to talk, not small talk, nope, not at all, but big talk. Humorous talk. Political talk. Religious talk. Cultural talk. Current events talk. Cool life experiences talk. Throwing some serious shade talk. Complaining about life talk. I prefer to talk for at least a couple hours each day, which is hard to do by yourself.
2) I suck at being lonely. I get sad and start feeling worthless and that just isn’t healthy, right?
3) MY LIFE WOULD BE SO INSANELY BORING AND SAD IF I DIDN’T SHARE IT WITH OTHER PEOPLE.
Which brings me to my next thought: I need all sorts of people to keep me sane. It’s not just me, either. Humans under solitary confinement literally go insane without interaction with others. We’re not meant to be lonely hermits who hide in caves with our netflix all the time – that would not be conducive to our survival, since we kind of need each other for food and babies, which are only the bare minimum of what we must acquire to exist as a species.
Maybe we’re more like the Portuguese man-of-war than we might think. In a literal sense, without factory workers making my clothes, farmers and grocery store clerks producing my food, people who wrote books a long time ago, a place of employment tossing me a paycheck every couple weeks, and whoever built my apartment, I would be quite naked, starving, poor, bored, and homeless. I would probably die under these conditions, because I live in Utah, where the fierce weather and strict conservatism can indeed be quite deadly when you stroll about naked.
In this broad sense, I need other people. I, along with just about everyone else these days, lack all the skills necessary to live completely off the grid of modern humanity. I’d be a sad, dead little man-of-war bit without the rest of the human organism working in my favor (which I understand is a major first-world look at things, but excuse my naivety).
There’s another way of looking at this, too: I really, really need my friends to be happy, even if I have a hard time admitting it as a stubborn loner type.
I need intellectual friends to inspire new ideas and help me realize what I think, and why I think it.
I need nerd friends who judge me for not taking the time to appreciate Tolkien or Dr. Who, because maybe someday I’ll actually take the time to appreciate Tolkien and Dr. Who because of them, which should be great, really.
I need encouraging friends to tell me things will be okay when I can’t convince myself of it.
I need hilarious friends who will make me laugh when all I want to do is cry.
I need honest friends, who aren’t afraid to tell me when I’ve made a mistake.
I need grown-up friends who’ve been there and done that, so I can see that life does go on despite occasional wrong-beings and -doings. Also, hello free life advice.
Friends are there when you need a spontaneous ice cream run, or movie-watching weep-fest, or just a really, really long chat about your life and the many questions you have about it, because even if they don’t have an answer, you will feel better afterwards, probably.
And let’s not forget that we introverts owe it to our (who are we kidding?) fellow-introvert friends to be just as nurturing, loving, and listening in return, which is also a great feeling. St. Basil, who invented nuns and monks who help people (huge generalization, but google him if you want to know more), said it well when he asked, if one is living in solitude, “whose feet will you wash?” It’s a good question. Make sure you’re figuratively washing other people’s feet, because service is so, so important in a world so full of fellow humans with their own unique sets of problems.
It’s even worth noting that those who may be less-than-friends are also deserving of kindness. Which is hard. I still struggle with this. I’m not one to be fake nice, at all, because I really don’t see how insincerity is helpful to anyone in any way. I usually take the passive “don’t say anything and hope they don’t notice me” approach when I have a less-than-favorable encounter with another person, and that’s something I know I need work on. We could all be better at feeling sincere kindness toward everyone, even people we might not connect with or always appreciate.
In short, be that piece of tentacle, or that bit of floating gas bladder if that’s more your style. Whatever you do, remember that we’re all part of the bigger picture, this giant floating creature of humanity that relies on every one of its components to function successfully. Remember the importance of everyone, even the difficult ones, and especially the ones you love. We cannot survive alone.
I know it’s scary. It’s highly overwhelming, weirdly daunting, and definitely something not all introverted people want to be a part of all the time, but this is important. Leave the computer. Speak up in class. Have a cozy evening with your closest friends to chat it out. Help somebody.
Because without each other, without some sort of connection with the fellow humans around us, we’d just be these tiny pieces of life disconnected from a Portuguese man-of-war, useless and unable to feed ourselves.