Can we be friends (or at least acquaintances at a conference)?

I was whining to my friend Ashley the other day about something that’s been on my mind and she told me to blog about it (which I somehow forgot is generally what I do when something’s on my mind).  It seemed like a good enough idea, so here we go:

If you are at the Midwest Humanist and Freethought Conference in Omaha this weekend and want to talk to me, do it.  It doesn’t have to be about atheism – it could be about the weather or football (though I’m not generally a fan of small talk, but you get the idea).

Why do I feel the need to say this?  Because the last year has been very interesting for me.  At first, when more attention was getting paid to me and my various projects there was just a bunch of tee heeing all around between me and my friends.  As I have been asked to speak more and more and as blog traffic goes up (apparently it’s at about 20,000 unique hits per month according to Katie, which boggles me) those close to me keep telling me I’m becoming ‘famous’ and that I should, at the least, acknowledge it.  Greta Christina tells me this regularly.

‘Famous’ – I really hate that word, honestly.  It makes me feel pretentious, even if I’m not the one saying it (and when I do write/say it, it just leaves me with a very sour taste in my mouth).  I don’t think I’m famous, not even close – which creates some cognitive dissonance when people I trust, like Greta or Jen, tell me I am.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m flattered to be asked to speak and I doubt there’s a whole lot of people who dislike recognition for doing work they’re passionate about.  I like all these things, but coming to grips with the idea that I’m becoming more known is really weird.

Recently, going back to the American Atheists and American Humanist Association conferences in April, I’ve had people say things to me at events like “I’ve been trying to get the nerve up to speak to you.”  This is no good.  I mean, I’m touched that some people think so highly of me, but I really don’t know how to react when somebody says something like that (other than to blush and say thank you).  It’s very surreal.  Nine months ago I was a college student.  Even today I pay rent on a tiny room, go to work, and go home and write/chill, pretty much just like everybody else.  I am aware of the growing recognition, but I don’t feel any different – I feel like any other atheist in the movement, same as I did in college, and I like that.

We all have different roles in this movement: one role I’ve fallen into is that of a speaker. Other people do behind- the- scenes organizing, or grassroots activism, or donate money, or work in their everyday lives to do visibility and education. All of which matters every bit as much as what I’m doing, if not more. It’s weird to me to get special praise or recognition for my role, that other people playing other equally important roles aren’t getting. I don’t want being on stage to separate me from the people in the audience or behind the scenes, many of which are doing just as much work as I, if not more. We’re all equally badass.

I know…what a ‘problem’ to gripe about, right?  Oh gawd, I’m soooooooooo popular!  Whatever will I do?  I realize that this is a ‘problem’ that most people would love to have, and I do feel kind of lame lamenting it at all.  I’m not saying I dislike the utility of more people listening to what I have to say (or even the adulation), I just dislike feeling disconnected from those around me, which is the point I’ve been hiking to throughout this post (while trying to avoid sounding stuck on myself…easier said than done): I like meeting people.  I like hearing peoples’ stories.  I would likely love to hear your story.  I want to know why you became an activist and what has worked for you.  I want to know your favorite color.  I want to be a part of the lives of other like-minded human beings, just like all of us.  Sadly, it’s much more difficult to forge a genuine connection with anybody if they are watching what they say or trying to impress in some way.  It’s so odd to me that someone would feel that way about meeting me, but it’s happened enough times now that I can’t help but give it thought.

If you find yourself in Omaha this weekend and want to speak to me, do it.  Pretty please, do it.  I don’t bite.  In fact, those who know me will vouch: I will probably be more nervous than you (I’m very shy meeting new people).  When we meet, be prepared to tell me something unique about yourself so I can get to know you as a part of this movement for which we’re both working.

We’re all in this together.  I want to know who I get to be teammates with.  If you want to chat with me then I want to chat with you.  Track me down and say hi – no nerves.

I wonder if it’s even possible for someone to address a situation like this without sounding like a pretentious ass.  I hope so.  I wrote this because I’d rather take a chance at being viewed as a pretentious ass than possibly missing out on meeting anybody who might be too shy to say hello.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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