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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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.