Don’t Crowd Me

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Seneca

I went to my local high school’s first home football game last month. Afterwards, I was exhausted. I mean, absolutely exhausted, like I had lead around my shoulders. I’d had a hard week at work, but the level of exhaustion was something else.

I realized the next day that I frequently have that feeling after returning home from many hours among crowds in my town. I don’t have the same feeling if I spend hours in, say, Chicago or New York, but spending hours in stands filled with friends, acquaintances, neighbors, people from church, my kids’ teachers, etc. and etc.?

Exhausting.

And it puts me in a bad mood. Or, more precisely, puts me in a different frame of mind that I don’t find pleasant, like it somehow upsets my (albeit limited) equanimity.

I can’t really explain it. I don’t come home with bad thoughts about anyone in particular, but my disposition in general is soured. My distaste for crowds doesn’t rise to the level of agoraphobia, but it’s nonetheless a pretty sharp distaste. I don’t like it and I don’t know where it comes from (Do I dislike people? Am I weird? Am I so self-conscious (vain) that I’m constantly on edge when others can see me?), but I can’t help it: like it or not, when I come back from an event with crowds, I’m out of sorts.

A few weeks later, I was going through my highlightings in Seneca’s letters. I remembered his comments about crowds and they gave me no small degree of comfort:

[W]hat you should regard as especially to be avoided? I say, crowds. . . [When I go out among crowds] I never bring back home the same character that I took abroad with me. . . . To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. . . . I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings.

So I guess if I’m weird, I take comfort knowing I stand in company with the great Seneca. (Aside: I speculate that my internal look while I’m among crowds parallels the look on Seneca’s face in the above picture.)

Seneca, incidentally, explained why crowds aren’t good for virtue. I think he’s at least partly right:

Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbour, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it!