How eavesdropping led me to a resolution

One recent morning I sat in a coffee shop doing some freelance work and half listening to two mothers who sat chatting in chairs beside me. One of the women did most of the talking, and she complained. A lot.

She complained about her schedule, about her kid’s teacher, about long emails and too-short spring breaks, about the cold, about her husband’s not taking her seriously when she said she wanted move to California.

The impish part of me wanted to interrupt and ask if anything good had ever happened to her, or at least in the last week. For crying out loud, here she was hanging out with a friend on a work morning, drinking hot coffee and wearing comfortable clothes while the red-eyed, suit-wearing masses lurched in and out around her, desperate for their morning fortification before a long day at the office.

But after a few minutes of listening I winced — yes, physically winced — as something very unpleasant occurred to me. How often have I been that person pouring out all my tales of woe, my insecurities, my frustrations and worries and fears into the ready ears of sympathetic girlfriends over similarly warm cups of coffee on pleasant days off? In fact, come to think of it, when was the last time I had a chance for a heart-to-heart that didn’t turn into an all-out Mabel Venting Session?

I can’t think of a single time.

Because, truth be told, I’m a world-class whiner. That might be too modest, actually. I wrote the book on whining. (The book itself was pretty negative and sales were weak, so I don’t talk much about it. But I digress.) I have a pretty amazing life when you look at it objectively, but somehow there’s always something to complain about. Negative feelings will crop up, and they must be given their day in public, mustn’t they?

When I’m not whining I’m backhandedly expressing my petty hurts over perceived slights and offenses. This acquaintance didn’t come to my dinner party last week, that roommate has been giving me the cold shoulder ever since I innocently remarked that she could clean her own dishes every once in a while, and my sister hasn’t called or texted me in weeks, which must mean she hates me. There’s always something to mutter about.

We strive so hard to avoid hurting one another’s feelings that we just end up being ugly. Instead of addressing issues head-on directly with the person who is causing us an issue, we “play nice” to their faces and then vent our frustrations in completely unproductive ways. Okay, I say “we.” Some people have learned the fine art of confrontation, but too often I still hide behind the mask of “niceness” because it avoids unpleasant discussions and emotions.

But when the mask comes off? It’s hideous. There was nothing attractive about that woman I overheard in the coffee shop. Indeed, I don’t even remember what she looked like because I was so distracted by the ugliness of everything she had to say. Yet she’s probably a lovely person, a good wife, mother, and friend, and I probably caught her in the middle of her purging session, when all the ugliness came out at once because she’d kept it bottled up for so long.

I have a long way to go, but that morning forced me to take a good look at myself, and to make a promise: to live honestly and speak openly with those who have to live with me, instead of bottling all my emotions and pretending nothing is wrong. I’m terrible at it, but maybe confrontation gets easier — or at least a little bit less terrifying — with practice?

If it doesn’t, don’t tell me. I may not have the stamina to keep it up. But I’m determined not to let long-held bitterness over trivial things make me ugly. That’s not what God made community for, even if the realities of Other People can drive you crazy sometimes.

Mabel

 

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Chivalry and the single girl

This blog post from James Michael Shama, founder of the New Chivalry Movement (an endeavor I applaud whole-heartedly) has been making the rounds on my Facebook feed over the past few weeks. It’s  great to see advice from one young man to another on being a gentleman. As a woman who spent most workday evenings standing on the DC metro during my four years commuting, while plenty of young, healthy men sat and stared at their phones, I’ve certainly experience firsthand that a good discussion on chivalry is long overdue, especially for my generation.

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I appreciate Mr. Shama’s work and I realize he’s speaking largely about relationships and how men ought to treat women within them. Still, as a single woman, I’d also like to remind the gentlemen of this world that chivalry is not limited to the woman you’re romantically interested in. Sure, hold the door for the girl you like and pull out your date’s chair at the table, but chivalry isn’t about scoring points with your girlfriend. It’s about honoring and respecting those more vulnerable than you, which means quite simply there’s not always something in it for you.

More than once I’ve been left in the proverbial cold while men went out of their way to impress my girlfriends with their chivalry. I’m well aware when a man is pursuing my friend, and I know just about every man in my acquaintance currently is only interested in me on the platonic level. I play the best friend role a lot, believe me, and I know how to be a third wheel.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt sometimes. As just one example among a few, several years ago a guy opened a door for my friend, then walked in after her himself and closed it on me–even though we were all walking together. I remember standing there staring at the closed door for a full minute, blinking in bewilderment. Apparently not being a romantic interest meant I wasn’t worth respecting at all. There’s not gentle way to put this: that hurt. It still hurts, in fact, even though it seems like such a small deal, and it happened so long ago.

We single women develop a thick skin to rebuffs like that. Over time we come to expect them. We twist the painful experiences into cynical jokes and snide “funny” stories so they don’t sting quite as much, but the pain of being unnoticed and unlooked-for is very real. Men, do you want to be truly chivalrous? Take the time to perform a random act of gentlemanliness for a woman you’re not romantically interested in. It shouldn’t be a romantic act (you don’t want to send the wrong signal), but just affirming her womanhood means the world — even if she’s used to being cynical and not quite sure how to take it.

AdamAndEve_Garden_Lucas_Cranach_0I often return to that scene in the Garden of Eden, when Adam awoke and saw the woman for the first time. His response was one of wonder and delight; he affirmed the woman as a woman, and that affirmation was her delight. Each of us women is that first woman, and each of us longs to be seen and affirmed, even the most cynical and thick-skinned of us. All it takes is a small act of chivalry, like holding a door or vacating a metro seat, to say, “I affirm you as a woman. Not a potential girlfriend or someone I really want to impress, but as a woman in your own right, even if I never see you again.”

In its ideal form, that’s what chivalry should be all about: affirming the value and worth of the other person, no strings attached.

–Mabel

GUEST POST: It starts at home

This guest post dives into one of the hardest (maybe the hardest) aspects of forgiveness: forgiving yourself, and accepting who that “self” is — regardless of what other people think of her (or him). 

By Allie Millette

Please pass your paper to the person sitting behind you…

Those are words I dreaded hearing during my junior high days.  Math.  I was so bad at Math.  I can’t really blame my teachers for doing it that way.  It was so much easier for them.  They could get us to check our work and they would assign the grade later.  The only problem with that theory is the person sitting behind me was smart, funny, and cute.  He was also on a mission to annoy me to tears, which he did…effectively…every day…for all of junior high.

Looking back on these episodes, I realized I had allowed this experience to define me. I considered myself to be “dumb”.  I spent three years and, therefore, the rest of my life comparing myself to a dude who probably never thought about me again after the eighth grade.  I often find myself wondering, “How would it be if I ran into him today?”

Every once in a while, you’ll hear me going off on some rant to my mama about having to pass my paper to the person sitting behind me and how it destroyed my self esteem.  Junior High can be a terribly cruel time in life and it certainly was for me.  As far as human behavior goes, Junior High was the bottom of the barrel.  I still shudder to think of it.

For a while, I shut out that little girl.  “That’s not me anymore.”  I would tell myself.  I pretended those days never existed.  I acted as if I didn’t hate myself.  I especially acted like the internal hatred for myself at the ripe old age of 11 didn’t spill over into my life at 31.  What I have learned is that I am an incredibly good actress.

I thought I had moved past it, but in reality, I only shut the door and walked away.  So many times we think just because we can’t see something, it means it doesn’t exist.  You can have a messy room in your house and shut the door so no one sees it, but…it’s still a mess.  Often, I don’t want to even go into said room because I wouldn’t even know where to start with cleaning it up.  I feel the very same way about Junior High.

What I’ve found is that my regrets don’t really center so much around things I didn’t say or do to others, but I regret the thoughts I had of myself.  I regret that I cared so much what other people thought of me.  I regret that I cared so much about my grades.  I regret that I cared whether or not the Math god who took up residence behind me in almost every class (we can thank alphabetical order for that one) thought I was smart, funny, or cute.  I deeply, deeply regret not giving myself a break.

When we talk about forgiveness, people automatically assume it’s an outward action.  Most of the time, for me, it’s inward.  I find I have to forgive myself more than anyone else.  As nice as it would be for said dude to apologize for being annoying, saying mean things, going through my purse, and committing whatever other preteen atrocities he committed that I laugh at now, it’s probably not going to happen.  I will most likely have to get there on my own.

I can’t help but think about that poor, helpless, little girl, the one who isn’t “me” anymore.  All she wanted was to be loved, to hear a kind word, to be encouraged.  That’s all any of us want, but instead, I threw her out in the cold crying, and I tried to drown out her tears.  How inhumane!  The reality is, none of this was her fault! It’s not my fault that 11 year old me didn’t possess the perspective I have now at 31.  It’s not your fault either.  Don’t let your present perspective be the barrier to you finding healing.

I am still very much that little girl.  I am every bit that little girl…we all are and we would be lying if we didn’t stand up and admit it.  At this point, all we can do is speak truth into the situation and tell that little girl she is loved. We need to own up to the fact that she is very much a part of us.  I found myself relentlessly going over in my head all of the things I wish I could have said and done differently, but at the end of the day, what’s done is done and the only thing left to do is look in the mirror and say I love you, I’m sorry for abandoning you, and I forgive you.  After all, how can we honestly expect for others to accept our offers of forgiveness when we can’t even face forgiving ourselves?

I will leave you with this advice:  Make peace with your past.  Forgive yourself for the things that you didn’t know back then and give yourself grace.  Walk into that room and start with one small thing, but don’t close the door.  Let the room air out. Let Him guide you in cleaning it up.  That precious little girl needs a place in your heart.   God will use that shameful piece of your life to show his unconditional love and acceptance to the men and women around you.   Don’t shut the door on that.  If you want to be a more forgiving person, you are going to have to start with yourself.

We were never promised a peaceful life.  As Christians, the only guarantee we can cling to is that we will have the cross, which will eventually be followed by the Resurrection.   God wants to show His love to those around you through the mess in your life.  Let Him in and let Him bring you His peace.

Sucker punch

A week and a half ago, I heard a really nasty, second-hand description of myself.

Dear readers, a word of advice: if anyone ever says to you, “So I was talking to someone the other day and you came up,” don’t lean forward expecting to hear something pleasant. You may be in for a nasty shock.

I can’t remember what was said word for word, but apparently the final analysis boiled down to this: they agreed that “‘Mabel’ would be pleasant enough, if she’d just get contacts and smile more.”

Even now, ten days later and a few emotions removed, I have no idea how to respond to that statement. I think my friend told me about it by way of offering constructive criticism, and I’m grateful for the intention. Something about me needing to be more approachable or something, but the bulk of the message got lost in the weeds of delivery. It may not come across that way, but I’m a sensitive person, so this statement hurt. It hurt a lot. I’m not going to lie, I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut.

I don’t know who said those things about me, and I don’t care to know. The point is that someone who runs in my circle of acquaintances has passed some pretty harsh judgments on me based on little more than my appearance. Apparently my choosing to wear glasses instead of contact lenses–a) I think they look good on me, and b) contacts hurt after about three hours–and not having a naturally cheerful face make me not even worth attempting to get to know. On two pretty shallow points, I’ve been sized up and found wanting.

It’s damaging enough to your vanity to discover that people who care about you have found fault with you in some area. But to learn that a near stranger is passing judgment on you from afar because you don’t look quite right? Because apparently there’s some ideal standard and you just don’t measure up? “Ouch” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Maybe I should lose ten pounds and come up with a better acne cream, while we’re on the subject.

Then earlier this week I was introduced to a new colleague. I sized him up in one quick glance: unironed shirt, unwashed pants, thick glasses, funny voice, uses nasty language. And I immediately filed him under “he stays in his corner, I stay in mine,” and moved on. It wasn’t until later in the day I even realized I’d done it. I have no idea what his past looks like, what his talents are, where he comes from, or where he wants to go. I don’t know anything about his family or his education or his interests or his favorite foods. I only know what I saw in a 10-second introduction, and I passed a harsh judgment on him, and it was wrong of me. Worse than that, considering I’m still nursing my own little wound, it was hypocritical.

That got me thinking: How many times in a day or a week or a month do I mentally put someone aside as not worth my time? How often do I take in the externals and decide, whether consciously or unconsciously, that I don’t care to dive deeper and learn who this person is? Worse, how often do I create an entire persona for them inside myself based on what little I know, and then pass judgment on that image as if it were the real person?

I’m ashamed to say that I do it almost daily, on some level. I may defend it by referring to my personal “boundaries” and silly rules about how many relationships one person can naturally handle. I may tell myself “it’s obvious” this person is a certain way because of specific traits or mannerisms. But there’s no real excuse. I am a raving hypocrite. I cheerfully judge people I barely know because they don’t have the right “look,” or because they aren’t approachable, or because they seem too full of it. But when someone else looks at me and sees the same unattractive qualities, I curl up in a ball and whine that it’s not fair, because there’s more to me than my glasses and my facial expression.

Clearly it’s time for a serious gut check. You can all stand in witness: I’m going to start checking my reactions when I meet new people, in any situation. Am I really giving them the time of day, or am I mentally logging them away in the “not worth my time” file for some stupid, shallow reason?

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For the record, I’m going to keep wearing my glasses, and I’m going to hope and assume that if marriage is my true calling, the man who can love me will also love my spectacles. And while I have no problem smiling when I’m in conversation or there’s something legitimate to smile about, I’m afraid there’s not a whole lot I can do about the physiological structure of my face. Sorry, God made me this way, and my natural expression is somewhat somber. So to my nameless judge, I can only say: you sound like a jerk.* But I’m not going to judge you yet, because I don’t know who you are — and you’ve actually done me a service. So I forgive you, and I even thank you. You’ve forced me to see the uncomfortable truth in that Gospel line: “Stop judging, and you will not be judged.”

— Mabel

 

*In all fairness if, as I suspect, you are among my male acquaintances from the broader church community in the DC area, I may have been rude to you or curt with you, because that tends to be my “default” position when I don’t want to give someone the wrong impression. It’s not right, and if I have been rude, I apologize. In that sense, I will work on “smiling” more. But if you like your women without glasses — well, find a chick who doesn’t wear them.