For some people a class reunion is a joyous occasion and an opportunity to connect with long time friends. For others, class reunions are bring on the worst kind of trepidation. Dread of encountering people you don’t like, or who don’t like you. Being nervous about your popularity, present or past. Worries over looks, weight or success in life can bring about anxiety, even depression of fear. Justifying yourself in the eyes of others is not too pleasing to some.
It need not be that way of course. Most people come through reunions relieved and unscathed, because somewhere between the fear and joy lies reality.
Yes, there are almost always people who arrive at reunions prepared to judge the relative success and youth of others. Perhaps the most amusing movie of all about this process is the chick flick Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. The two slightly daft gals discover their true talents by the end of the movie, but not without some grievous pain in the process. One even finds true love.
Reunions for both high school and college are designed to bring people back together. This long tradition is changing with the advent of social media where people now connect without benefit of a reunion of any sort. Every day of the week can be a reunion if you want it to be.
Even so, as the years go by perspectives about what it means to reunite typically tend to change. The vagaries of life almost demand it. My brother once offered this advice to me before the occasion of my 20th-year high school reunion. “You might actually like this one,” he observed. “By now everyone’s had their ass kicked at least once.”
Interestingly, that year I attended not just one but three separate 20th-year high school reunions. One was for my actual graduating class. The second was for the class with which I would have graduated had I not moved away from a high school out in cornfields of Illinois. And the last was a reunion for the class with which I would have graduated had I not moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois in the 7th grade.
Guess which reunion felt the most tangible? Perhaps you know. That reunion back home in Pennsylvania put me back in touch with kids that had shared grade school and middle school together. We all know those connections are earthy and real.
Yet the two actual high school reunions delivered on promises of old friendships as well. I actually served as emcee at the first reunion I attended. Frankly that was not much fun. Gaining the attention of people deep into discover of old friendships means you’re basically a distraction. It was pretty much an evening that felt like consistent rejection. I promised myself not to take it personally. Anyone else in charge could have had the same experience. But I’ll confess that it left a bitter taste in my mouth.
I missed the 25-year reunion because my late wife was sick with cancer. The milestones of life and death do not pay attention at times to our own plans and schedules. Missing that reunion served to instruct me how many years had actually passed.
It’s a strange feeling to so many people when the years come crashing down on you. As a high school product of the 1970s, it’s pretty easy to find song lyrics predicting the passage of time. Pink Floyd does both a service and a disservice to this topic of time passing with these lyrics:
“But you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking…
And racing around to come up behind you again…
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older…
And shorter of breath, and one day…closer to death.”
It’s a humbling reality that none of us lives forever. We laugh and play through our 20s even into our 30s. We come to grips with financial and family realities in our 40s. By our 50s we either stay marriage or lose a spouse to divorce or death. The kids grow up and you feel exposed to the winds of life, and one more reunion can feel like the wind knows all your secrets.
But some of us ignore that wind and stick new seeds of self into the ground. We weed away concerns and learn what faith really means in the context of a full life. We forgive ourselves and others, if we’re lucky and smart. Women tend to choose close friends and confirm their sanity. Men learn to forsake their concerns over athletic prowess and begin to take pride in the facility of their negotiations over self and ego.
Humility is a grace in two forms. It takes grace to jump those hurdles of worry and distrust that trip us up in life. As the Bible says, the world is full of stumbling blocks to enlightenment.
Then there is the grace it takes to handle intentional and unintentional affronts to your character. Sometimes people can’t help themselves with their words. They say things that echo old habits of insecurity or arrogance. The words come out of their mouths as if they had not grown away from that long-ago character or situation lurking around in their sub conscience. Be it a class clown or a brilliant student, we all absorb character aspects that are not always easy to manage. Even as years pile up it only takes a word or two at times to bring bad associations to the surface.
That’s what makes it so difficult to know what to expect from a class reunion. Will people be nice or not? Will they accept the person you’ve become or impose some assumption of character upon you in awkward, even vicious ways?
Sometimes the opposite happens. While attending that reunion back in Pennsylvania I was taking a breather from encounters with long lost friends by nursing a drink in a far flung corner of the VFW hall where we gathered. Just then a quiet man walked up to me and said, “Chris Cudworth?”
“Yes,” I smiled. “It’s great to be back.”
We talked a bit and slowly we recalled details of our association together. I remembered sharing gym class and a few other experiences with the guy. He was not one of the so-called popular but we spent a lot of time together. “The thing I liked about you is that you treated everyone as equals,” he told me.
Values and insecurities
That’s a value that I’ve held from the earliest phases of my life. With insecurities of my own boiling around inside, it made sense in not to push others about their flaws. All people deserve respect. I have indeed forgotten that value at times and shamed myself and others in the process. That is my confession.
But a reunion is a great opportunity to make good on any of those transgressions in life. It’s amazing at times that people who have crossed us, or whom we have crossed on our own accord, can become friends when false pride and fear is relinquished. The right kind of pride enables us to look for these opportunities for reconciliation and forgiveness. It can also protect us when we try to make good and find people unaware or unwilling to find paths to healthy, mature relationships.
You can probably expect a little of both from most reunions. We all travel the same path in life, but every person has to actualize at their own pace in life.
The best thing you can do, and the best thing you can expect from any reunion is a forgiveness for any wrongs in the past and a joy at someone acknowledging the person you are in the present.
Christopher Cudworth is author of The Right Kind of Pride; Character, Caregiving and Community.