The red numbers on the digital clock switched to 4:55 as I entered through the bank of glass doors, stepping from fading daylight into a fluorescent glow. A few yards down the hallway, I found an empty space of wall to lean against. I tried to exude an air of contentment and assurance as I avoided the eyes of others trying to do the same.
The heavy drone of exhaust fans and clanking of dishes rose above the silence. The aromas of greasy pizza, chicken nuggets, and french fries were already permeating my clothes and hair.
As the minutes ticked by we slowly converged to form a line at the register. Coming together, but all still alone, like beads strung on a necklace.
When the clock finally read 5:00, my nonchalance turned to hustle. It was easier to eat before the cafeteria got busy.
It hurts more to be lonely in a crowd.
After swiping my card, I strode as fast as I could to pick up my silverware and tray, all the while scanning for which food line would be the shortest.
Once my plate was heaped with greens I walked swiftly toward an out of the way table—three from the back next to the windows overlooking the softball field. The table I chose everyday.
The table where I hid—hoping no one would notice me, praying someone would see me.
The three empty chairs at my four-person table formed a fortress between me and everyone else. I could watch them—filling their plates, joining friends in laughter, or trying to hide behind their books—from my rectangular island of neutral laminate.
We were all students at the same college. We were there for a similar purpose and supposedly held similar values.
But I didn’t belong.
As I quickly ate my spinach leaves, the clamor continued to rise. The line at the register had shifted from sporadic individuals arriving early to avoid the crowds to the crowds themselves—chatting groups of friends, sports teams, entire dorm floors.
The tables started filling up, my sign to get going. I rushed to finish my meal before the groups looking for somewhere to sit started looking my way, eyeing me reproachfully for occupying a space for four.
I resented everything about the cafeteria. The cacophony of laughter and conversations highlighted the connection I was missing, while the greasy food smells clung to me as a reminder. The people went about their lives as if I wasn’t even there.
I blamed them for my loneliness.
And I blamed myself for not being acceptable. For not being lovable.
Everyday I sat at that table counting down the days until I could be somewhere else. A place where people were kinder. A place where I was worthy of love and belonging. A place where I could be the person I wanted to be.
I sat and watched my peers, but I didn’t really see them. I was so focused on being somewhere else that I didn’t see where I was.
College had promised a fresh start somewhere new. But instead, I found myself biding my time until I could graduate and move on. Even after I had the diploma in my hand, I carried with me the expectation my next job, home, or friend would bring contentment. No matter where I was, I looked ahead to the next place.
A decade later, a simple phrase in a sermon challenged my perspective.
Invest where you are.
As God told the Israelites when they were exiled in Babylon, don’t hold yourself aloof waiting to be rescued. Don’t while away your time believing you’ll soon be somewhere that really matters. Don’t just survive the place where you find yourself. Invest in the place of your exile and build a home where you can flourish and help others thrive. Whether you’re here for a moment or a lifetime, this time and place matter. These people matter. You matter.
My cafeteria table didn’t have to be a place of exile.
I can’t go back and change my experience, but I can invest where I am today. When I feel unnoticed I try to remember to look around for others praying to be seen and invite them to the table.
I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow, but today I want to pull up a chair, grab a slice of pizza, and join the conversation right here.
Will you join me?
Johanna Schram feels most comfortable in places that are cozy and most alive in places that are spacious. Though the city changes, Wisconsin has always been the state she calls home. Johanna is learning to value wrestling with the questions over having all the answers. She craves community and believes in the connecting power of story. Johanna writes to help others know themselves and find freedom from the “shoulds” keeping them from a joyful, fulfilling life at joRuth. She can be found on Twitter @joRuthS.