There is an anecdote in my baby book that explains so much. The brief notation is written in my mother’s perfect handwriting.
Christmas 1969 Trina was in the Sunday School program but kept falling backward.
That is all it says.
As a teenager, I remember asking my mom to elaborate. There really wasn’t much to tell. Apparently, nearly three-year-old me was one of several children singing Away In the Manger, but I could only get through a few lyrics before I’d fall backwards. Then I’d pick myself up, resume singing, and fall over again. And then I’d pick myself up again. And again. And again.
I hadn’t thought about that story in decades until this week when I was clinging to the root of a wild Rhododendron bush on the side of a cliff.
How could I have let myself get into this situation? I am the person who was once too uncoordinated to sing and stand up at the same time.
Being uncoordinated has shaped the person I am. I am the little girl who could never do a cartwheel and failed gymnastics. I am the kid who never once hit the ball during softball. I am the teenager who could run fast during a track meet but tripped at the finish line. I am the college student who sprained her ankle walking down the stairs of her dorm. I am the friend who got left behind on a ski trip because I just couldn’t get my feet to work correctly. I am the woman who shattered her wrist while walking her dog. I am the person who constantly has bruises and who everyone at work worries about every time they hear a crash or a loud bang.
My lack of grace generated a sense of fear in me at an early age. I wasn’t afraid of heights. I was afraid of what I might do to myself if I tried to do anything from a height: jumping downstairs, going off a diving board; springing off a swing in mid flight. I’d watch in awe as other kids did those things, but I avoided doing any of those them myself. And those decisions came with regrets. I once stood at the top of a fire pole willing myself to go down, but my feet refused. They felt as though they each weighed a thousand pounds.
My journalist mother was writing a feature story about a family that had installed the pole in their house as a fun way for their children to get from the second floor to the first floor. All of the kids in the house, their friends, and even my mother had gone down the pole. And yet, I stood in fear at the top unable to grab and go. The shame I felt from having to take the stairs stayed with me and inspired me to push through the fear.
Which is why, earlier this week, I found myself desperately hanging onto the side of the cliff.
My husband and I had taken the week off to spend time hiking and exploring state parks. He was on a mission to find a certain waterfall from a historical illustration, and his search took us to a series of falls that could only be accessed off the beaten path.
Off the beaten path turned out to be what I can only describe as an almost completely vertical cliff.
Getting to the first falls was fairly easy, but I took one look at the steep descent to the next one and said, “I can’t do it.” But then I did it anyway. The descent to the third waterfall, the one that plunges forty feet, was basically a forty foot vertical drop with vegetation and a few foot holes. “I can’t do this,” I said. And then I did it anyway. My forehead and back were dripping in sweat, but I did it anyway.
As my husband and I stood on a rock taking photos of the falls and basking in our success, he turned to me and said, “Now we have to do the hard part and go back up.”
“I’m not worried about that,” I replied. “Getting back up has always been the easy part for me.”
I wasn’t just referring to the fact that, to me, climbing uphill really is much easier than going down a hill, when I often feel unbalanced.
I was referring to the fact that life has demanded that I learn to turn my weaknesses into strengths. When I was almost three years old, I had a problem simultaneously singing and standing. But when I fell, I always got back up. And I eventually learned to sing and stand. And to ride a bike. And to climb trees. And to climb down cliffs. And to trust myself to take risks.
The secret to enjoying life isn’t just about finding those things at which we are innately good and pursuing them. It’s about finding joy in overcoming those things at which we sometimes fail.
It’s about getting back up.
Every time I think I’ve dealt with the most difficult person I’ve ever met, God laughs. And then another difficult person enters my life.
And every time I’ve struggled with the chaos and hurt that person leaves in his or her wake, I tell myself the same thing: “I’m supposed to learn or gain something from this situation. One day, I will look back and tell myself, ‘Oh that’s why that happened.'”
And up until now, I’ve been right.
But recently, I’ve had a hard time believing myself and in myself. This time, I’m fairly confident that even God isn’t laughing,
You see, I’m dealing with the most narcissistic and manipulative person I have ever met. And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump (who I’ve never actually met anyway). However, I still respond when people ask if dealing with this person is like dealing with Donald Trump.
My response is, “it’s worse.”
That’s because most people recognize that Donald Trump is a narcissist. Those who support him obviously don’t care, but at least they recognize who and what he is.
Not so for the individual that I’m currently forced to deal with. In fact, this person is so good at manipulation that I was almost a victim of their false charm and gaslighting.
A part of me wishes I had been.
If so, I wouldn’t be so angry and frustrated, I’ve wasted too much time dealing with the narcissist’s efforts to manipulate. I’ve wasted too much energy being flabbergasted that people in positions to stop the path of destruction actually believe the narcissist instead of those who are complaining. And I’ve lost too much sleep searching the internet for ways to deal with a narcissist.
Unfortunately, all I really learned is that calling out a narcissist only makes the situation worse.
I didn’t have to Google that nugget of information. I learned it the hard way.
That which brings me back to what I’ve always told myself, “Eventually, you will look back on this situation and recognize how much you learned and why you needed to learn it.”
In the meantime, I have to find humor in how ridiculous the situation continues to be and to find solace in the fact that I have a great support system. Just the other day my husband sent me a text message reminding me to channel my inner Stuart Smalley. “You are good enough. Your are smart enough. And doggone it people like you.”
He only forgot one thing, but it didn’t come from the mouth of Stuart Smalley. Instead, it’s from that great philosopher anonymous.
“I’m thankful for all those difficult people in my life. They have shown me exactly who I don’t want to be.”
For the past few month’s, I’ve been feeling like Horton the Elephant in Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s book Horton Hears a Who.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, the Whos live on a speck of dust that is floating through the air, which means their entire civilization is at risk of being destroyed.
Because Horton has such big ears, he is the only jungle animal that can hear the Whos. Initially, he saves their community by putting the speck of dust on a clover so he can carry and protect it. His efforts are undermined and ridiculed by the other jungle animals, who try to destroy the clover. Horton rightly believes the only way he can save the Whos is by ensuring their voices are heard by the other jungle animals.
Nothing works until Jo Jo, the tiniest Who of all, joins the effort.
I may not be carrying around a clover, but I am carrying around a lot of concerns. I’m worried that something I’ve cared for and nurtured is going to be destroyed, and the people who could truly protect “my speck’ won’t listen.
Fortunately, unlike Horton who felt all alone in his efforts to protect his clover, I know I’m not alone. Many of us carry clovers. And, like Horton, we persevere because we have to. We are responsible for those who have less power.
Dr. Seuss understood this and passed the message on through his books. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood it and passed the message on through his speeches.
And they both understood that no voice is ever too small.
Jo Jo had a tiny voice that made all the difference to the survival of the Whos. Members of the Civil Rights movement were the voices that changed the world. And all of us can be a voice for someone who needs our support.
Be a Horton. Or be a Jo Jo. Or be both. But most importantly, be someone who does what you can to make the world a better place for others.
I was a bit irritated when I walked into the retail establishment and saw both clerks were already helping other people. I had specifically planned to be at the store when it opened so I wouldn’t have to wait in line. A couple of uncooperative traffic lights had disrupted my plans, and now I was stuck waiting.
The assistance I needed was simple and could have been quickly addressed, but the guy ahead of me was in no hurry. Instead, he seemed oblivious to anything but the long list of complaints he was making known to everyone in the store.
Being forced to listen to him was making me even more irritated,
And so while I waited, I judged him.
I judged him to be an uneducated, racist, redneck. I also guessed that he was about my age, which is why his anti-technology rant was so intolerable.
He was in the store to pay a bill and was complaining about the late fee. His bill had been due on Christmas, and he told the clerk that he couldn’t pay it because the store was closed. The woman politely told him that didn’t have to pay the bill on the day it’s due but could pay it in advance. He ignored her statement and told her that his previously bill was due on a Sunday, and he couldn’t pay it because the store was also closed. The salesperson politely told him the store IS open on Sundays. She also noted that he could pay his bill online.
And that’s when the anti-technology rant began. The man used his limited vocabulary to explain that the one time he tried to pay a bill online, the bank had taken the same amount of money out of his account every month. When he called to complain, he had to talk to someone who couldn’t speak English very well.
“I’m an American, he said. “I speak American. If people are going to work in this country, they need to speak American too.
That’s when the clerk surprised me. “My husband is from another country. He’s working to learn English, but it’s been hard.”
She said it nicely without any note of condemnation or disagreement with the customer. She was just stating a fact, and, surprisingly the man said little else. He didn’t apologize, but his rant stopped. He paid his bill with cash and left mumbling to himself.
“Wow,” I told the clerk, “that was amazing. You have so much patience.”
“I have to. I work retail,” she said. “I have to forgive people because I can’t go through my day angry.”
“I’m still impressed,” I said. “Especially since he was so angry about people from other countries. Where is your husband from?”
“Honduras. He’s been here nine years, and he still struggles with the language.”
“Honduras,” I repeated. “Wow, I bet he came here for a good reason.”
“The cartel took over his family farm,” she said. “We are still trying to get the rest of his family up here but we aren’t having much luck.”
I chose not to engage her in a conversation about the current immigration system or political environment. Instead, she asked me what I needed, and, as expected, I was soon out the door.
But the encounter stayed with me for much of the day. I was angry at the man but impressed with the clerk. I envied her ability to remain unruffled and almost kind to such an ignorant fool.
Only that night, when thoughts about the day raced through my mind as I was trying to fall asleep, did I recognize what a hypocrite I was.
My job is to advocate for people who struggle.
My job is educate the public about how stress, and adverse experiences, and lack of early childhood education can have a lifelong impact.
My job is to work with people who have few resources and little exposure to other cultures or countries.
My job is to help people just like that man.
For all I knew, the man was illiterate or have a learning disability. He might have grown up in an abusive, hate-filled environment. He might live where there is no access to technology because of geography or finances. He might have emptied his bank account to pay that bill.
Standing in that store wearing my middle-class, well-educated, self-righteous attitude, I had judged him based on nothing but how he was behaving in what was probably a very stressful situation for him.
I did exactly what I am always complaining other people do: I made judgments based solely on my personal perspective and experiences.
I could have spent a sleepless night worrying about my hypocrisy, but I didn’t.
Instead, I took to heart the words the clerk had uttered that day: I have to forgive people because I can’t go through my day angry.
She was right. What she didn’t say was that sometimes the person we have to forgive is ourselves.
And that’s exactly what I did.
Last week, two of my high school classmates passed away in completely unrelated circumstances. I was never more than an acquaintance of either woman, but their deaths affected me deeply.
They made me think about my own mortality.
Even though I’ve been known to say “I’m so old,” I really don’t feel old. In fact, on most days I forget that I’m even an adult. My friends and colleagues can certainly testify that I frequently forget to act like an adult.
But when two people from my graduating class died within days? That not only made me question what I’ve actually done with my life, it also made me reflect on everything I still want to do. In all honesty, it made me wonder about my legacy.
Amid those thoughts, I considered how much I’ve changed since high school, how much I haven’t changed, and all of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. And I realized that aging shouldn’t be measured by the crow’s feet around my eyes or the laugh lines around my mouth. Instead, it should be measured by all the nuggets of truth I’ve picked up among the successes, mistakes, joys, heartaches, worries and moments of peace I’ve experienced on this bumpy road called life.
I’ve had 52 years to accumulate these little life lessons, so it seems appropriate that I share one lesson for every year of that journey:
- Be a goofball. Life is so much more bearable when you find ways to be a goofball.
- If a situation or person makes you uncomfortable, don’t hesitate to walk away. There’s a reason your’re uncomfortable.
- If something reminds you of song, then start singing it out loud . . . unless you are at a funeral. Then just sing silently or people will give you angry looks.
- Speaking of funerals, always act as though you recognize the person in the coffin. If you don’t, never yell out loud that you are in the wrong place. You probably aren’t. The person in the coffin just doesn’t look like the person you knew because of the makeup or clothes or hair. Or all of the above. After yelling you are in the wrong place, you will immediately realize that you are in the right place because people you know will check to see if you are all right.
- Never hesitate to tell someone that you love them. Unless you don’t love them. Then you should hesitate.
- Spend time with people who are younger than you.
- Spend time with people who are older than you.
- No matter what the weather is, spend at least 30 minutes outside every day. Extreme cold, extreme heat, wind, rain and snow will do more for your soul than staying cooped up inside every will.
- Comparing yourself to other people will never make you a better person no matter how hard you try to be as good or as strong or as smart or as successful or as talented or as skinny or as pretty. You are disrespecting your own unique traits, and are just making yourself miserable.
- Not everyone you meet is going to like you. Why would they? You certainly don’t like everyone you meet.
- If you want unconditional love, get a dog. No human will ever give you the unconditional love that a dog does.
- At least once a year, spend time lying on your back looking up at the clouds. You’ll always see something interesting. When you get older, you might see some floaters against the blue sky, but you should ignore them. The shapes you should pay attention to are the ones in the clouds.
- Trying to be perfect only annoys other people. Instead, be genuine. The only people who are annoyed by genuine people are fake people. And who cares what they think?
- Always keep at least one toy in your office. If you can’t play at work, you should find another job.
- Never be ashamed of your opinion. However, make sure you don’t confuse opinions with facts.
- If you are in an accident, your underwear is the least of your worries. Medics and health care professionals don’t care if your underwear is clean or in perfect condition. After you’ve been in accident, your underwear is probably neither anyway.
- Vote in every single election.
- Never pretend to like music or movies for the sake of someone else.
- Don’t listen to advice from people who say you should eat your dessert first. Trust me. Eat your vegetables first.
- Don’t let you cat pee in the dryer vent. I say this, but I have no earthly clue how to actually achieve this. If someone knows how to prevent your cat from peeing in the dryer vent, please share it with ever cat owner you know. They will be forever appreciative.
- Become a student of history. Read books or newspaper articles. Listen to podcasts. Watch documentaries. There is so much truth in the quote “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’
- Do your best to remember people’s names and something that is important to them. Don’t do this for their sake. Do it for yours.
- Get a little bit of exercise every day.
- Admit your mistakes. Always admit your mistakes.
- Get a copy of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder). Seriously. Every day you are going to have to deal with irrational people whom you don’t understand. If you have a copy of the DSM, at least you can try to figure out what is wrong with them. You might not be able to actually to that, but going through the DSM will keep you so busy that you’ll be less irritated.
- Find those friends with whom you can bitch about other people. I know this doesn’t sound kind, but let’s face it, we are all human and other people annoy us. Find those friends who are annoyed by the same people and keep them on speed dial. It can save your sanity.
- Visit the world’s churches and cathedrals just to enjoy the architecture and the sense of serenity.
- Recognize that money will never buy happiness but using your money to help others will make you feel happy.
- Spend more time listening to music and reading than watching television.
- Learn to forgive. Forgiving is so much better for your mental health than holding a grudge.
- Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you forget. There are some people who are better just not being in your life, and you have the right to make that choice.
- It’s just as important to forgive yourself as it is to forgive other people. But since you can’t walk away from yourself, you have to make a conscious decision to learn from your mistakes.
- Medication can help with anxiety and depression, but so can gardening. When life is tough, plant flowers, Get dirt under your fingernails. There is nothing like the feeling of satisfaction of getting all of the dirt out from under your fingernails after a day of gardening.
- Buy and wear colorful clothes. Most of us went through a black clothes phase at some point. Despite what we thought at the time, there is nothing interesting about black clothes.
- Carry an interesting purse. It’s the best conversation starter ever.
- Always wear a bra when you leave the house. Always. Even if you are wearing a t-shirt, a sweatshirt and a coat to walk the dog. You might think there is no reason to wear a bra, but something might happen. For example, you might fall down, shatter your wrist, and end up in the emergency room.
- Trust your gut more than the advice of other people.
- Never, ever accept credit for someone else’s ideas or work.
- Always wear your lightest clothes to the doctor’s office and remove all jewelry before being weighed. If you are going to the doctor’s in the winter, wear shorts and pretend you just worked out.
- Find your passion and you’ll find your tribe.
- Don’t regret your past. If it wasn’t your past, you wouldn’t be the person you are now.
- Don’t accept anything at face value.
- Give compliments. Just make sure they are genuine.
- Never strive to be the most important person in the room. Strive to be the most understanding.
- Spend some time with trees. Seriously. The energy and vibes you can get from trees are amazing.
- Feed stray animals. If your neighbors complain, lie.
- Sometimes you have to lie to keep the peace, but never tell a lie that could hurt someone.
- Learn to master the eye roll. Then keep sunglasses handy.
- Always remember that no matter how much you want other people to understand your point of view, they are hearing it from their point of view. That means words you didn’t intend to be hurtful can be hurtful anyway and statements you make as explanations can be taken as accusations. Knowing this doesn’t fix anything, but it does provide perspective.
- Spend less time trying to figure out someone else’s motives and more time ensuring sure your own motives are good.
- Find and keep friends who can cook.
- Remember life is like a satisfying bike ride. Sometimes you’ve been going uphill for so long that you are exhausted and feel as though the climb will never end. And just when you think you can’t go on, you reach the top. Then you can relax into the joy and exhilaration of going downhill. Sometimes your are just riding on flat surface maintaining. And every time you ride, you get stronger and learn another technique to make you a better cyclist. All of those struggles and joys become memories, and the string of memories each of us creates becomes our legacy.
There’s an old saying “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The saying may be old, but it’s more relevant than ever. From the world stage to the community stage, too many people use the slightest bit of authority to benefit themselves. Sometimes they do so with no thought to the damage they do to others, sometimes they tell lies to hide their true intentions, and sometimes they just don’t care.
But those left in their wake do care.
I should know.
In the last few months, weeks, and even days, the fallout from multiple instances of abuse of power has seeped into both my personal and professional life.
But, like so much in life, I’ve had to make a choice. I can either ignore the problems or I can can learn from them.
I’ve chosen to learn, and here’s what I’ve figured out: people only abuse their power because other people let them.
Sometimes, people allow the abuse of power because they think they too will benefit. They realize what is happening is wrong, but the potential gains outweigh the immorality of the situation. So they say and do nothing.
Sometimes people are afraid to call out the wrong doing. They fear they’ll be hurt, someone they care about will be hurt, or that an institution or organization in which they are invested will be hurt. So they say and do nothing.
Sometimes people believe more in institutions than they do people, and they will do all they can to protect those institutions. So they say and do nothing.
Sometimes people are in such awe of power that they truly believe that the abuse of power is justified. Or they believe that those who are abusing the power somehow earned and deserve to be where they are and to do what they do. Or they were taught not to question authority. So they say and do nothing.
These may be excuses, but they should never be excusable.
In the end, people who abuse their power only do harm: to people; to communities; to organizations; to institutions; and even to countries.
And while their behavior is reprehensible, looking the other way when abuse occurs is what allows it to continue.
It’s the sin that sits next to power.
Yesterday, I discovered that the old tree I’d admired during so many bike rides is now a broken remnant of it’s former majesty.
The sight of it literally made me cry.
I’d always considered the tree a living definition of the term survivor. It had, after all, obviously withstood so many of life’s storms, including a lightening strike. Because of all its scars, the tree was much more magnificent than the younger trees nearby.
Yesterday, seeing what remained of it, I no longer thought so. Even more bothersome was that some time had obviously passed since it had fallen, and I hadn’t even realized it.
Granted, I changed my regular bike route a while ago so I haven’t recently ridden by the tree, but I didn’t think it had been THAT long.
Apparently it had been.
Like so much recently, the overgrown stump was a reminder of how quickly time passes. And with the passage of time comes loss: the loss of friends and family, the loss of youth, and even the loss of the roles and responsibilities that we think define us.
But as I looked at the stump through the tears, I realized something else. The remnants of the tree were still making their mark on both the landscape and on me.
And that’s really all we can ask of anything.
Moments and people can’t stay in our lives forever. Instead, we have to make the most of what they give us and then use that to shape the remaining time and relationships we have.
In the past, I’d always thought the tree was there to teach me the lesson that being a survivor is about staying strong during tough times.
Yesterday, its remains taught me a new lesson: survival isn’t just about standing strong. Sometimes it involves letting go of what we think defines us so we can reach out to find new ways to make our mark on the world.
And it taught me I can do all of that while still embracing the memories.
Neither age nor time has changed my opinion of Mrs. Gladwill.
I will go to my grave believing that my first grade teacher actually took pleasure in torturing little kids.
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: at age six, when I watched the movie The Wizard of Oz for the first time, I was convinced that the Wicked Witch of the West had taken lessons from Mrs. Gladwill.
Horrible memories from first grade still haunt me:
- Being put in the corner because it was easier to move me rather than the kids around me who were cheating;
- Wetting my pants because Mrs. Gladwill believed that if you didn’t use lunch or recess to relieve yourself, you didn’t plan appropriately;
- Going to school with the mumps because I didn’t want my name to be written on the upper right hand corner of the chalkboard for being absent;
- Getting caught going to school with the mumps, being blamed for infecting most of the kids in my class, and having my name written on the upper right hand corner of the chalkboard anyway.
The list goes on and on. But nothing compares to the horror I felt for making my first mistake on a school assignment.
Up to that point, I though school was too easy. So, when Mrs. Gladwill gave her class a worksheet with rows of pictures and told us to circle everything that began with the letters ch, I scoffed at such a simple task. While my peers studied the worksheet and labored over the choices, I took more time selecting which crayon to use than I did actually circling the pictures: a chairs, cherries; checkers, a chicken, cheese and a few other items. I raised my hand, turned in my paper and took pleasure in being the first in my class to complete the assignment.
What I never anticipated was getting the paper back the next day with a big red circle around the picture of a church and an even bigger -1 at the top of the page.
I was so astonished, I forgot to be afraid of Mrs. Gladwill. I actually reached out and tugged on her sleeve.
“You made a mistake,” I blurted out in my moment of disbelief,
I immediately regretted my words.
Mrs. Gladwill turned around with a look that said “I never make mistakes.” Her lack of words, however, gave me the opportunity I needed.
“You circled the turch,” I said. “Turch doesn’t begin with ch, It begins with T.”
For the first time in my life, an adult looked at me as though I was stupid.
“CHurch,” Mrs. Gladwill said emphasizing the ch sound, “begins with ch.”
And that was the end of our discussion. But it wasn’t the end of my disbelief.
I took the offending paper home to show my mother, who, to my amazement, sided with Mrs. Gladwill.
I was stunned. We went to turch almost every Sunday. When I talked about turch, it definitely started with a T. And that’s how others people said it too. I couldn’t have been saying and hearing it wrong.
And yet, according to my mother and to Mrs Gladwill, I had been.
The day my mother convinced me that turch wasn’t a word was quite possibly the most humbling day of my life. My world was turned upside down because I realized that the way I perceived it wasn’t always accurate. That was the most important lesson I learned in first grade.
It’s also one of which I am regularly reminded.
Just the other day, I discovered that yet another person I knew had died of a drug overdose, and, once again, people took to social media to disparage her. There were comments about how she used the money she got from being on welfare to buy drugs. There were comments about her deserving to die if she did drugs. There were even comments that the world was better off with one less drug user.
And for every one of those comments, someone who knew would point out that she wasn’t on welfare – she had a job. They would point out that she was a kind soul who went out of her way to help others. They would say that she had a family who loved her. That seemed to fall on deaf ears.
The people who were making the negative, hateful comments were doing exactly what I did as a first grader – only instead of insisting that the word church starts with a T, they were insisting that there is only one type of person who dies of a drug overdose. Based on their judgemental comments, the only thing that will change their mind is when someone they know and care about dies of an overdose.
I wouldn’t wish that on anyone – just as I wouldn’t wish any child has a horrible teacher like Mrs. Gladwill. But there is something to be said for negative experiences. They teach us valuable lessons; they help us develop new skills; they give us a new perspective; and, hopefully, every once in a while, they teach us humility.
Mrs. Gladwill died ten years ago at the age of 94. When my mother sent me her obituary, all those negative feelings from first grade came rushing back. But something else came back as well: a memory of my mother telling me that the smartest people make a lot of mistakes in life. The difference between them and others is that they always learn from them.
Thanks Mom. And (I say this with a great deal of hesitancy) thanks also, Mrs. Gladwill.
On Friday afternoon, my 16-year old daughter and her friend giggled as they insisted I look at a picture from earlier that day.
In the photo, my daughter, who wears her glasses more than she wears her contacts, had placed several of her friends’ glasses over her own.
She was laughing with delight at the image of all those glasses perched on her nose. But just looking at the picture made my head hurt because trying to see the world through multiple lenses can be painful.
It’s so painful, in fact, that many of us avoid doing it.
But we should.
I was reminded of that this week when I begrudgingly attended a continuing education program that I needed to keep my social work license. The licensure requirements recently changed to include at least two hours about mental health issues for veterans, which was the topic of the workshop.
As soon as I entered the classroom, I realized that not all of us were there solely because we wanted to keep our licenses.
When I sat down, the older gentleman sitting directly across from me explained that, even though he wasn’t a social worker, he was interested in the topic.
He was a veteran he said as he gestured to a woman sitting near us who was wearing a hijab.
“I was taught to kill people like that,” he said to me. “Now I’m being told to accept them.”
I’m not even sure what hackles are, but I immediately felt mine go up. His words were in direct opposition to everything I’ve been raised to believe:
- America was founded on the principle of religious freedom.
- Christians aren’t supposed to judge people who are different than we are.
- Good people don’t want to harm others based on their beliefs.
With only a few words, this man who had spent most of his life in service to my country, made me question both his ethics and the agenda of our country’s military.
Only hours later, after listening to a presentation about military culture, hearing from family members of veterans, and getting bombarded with statistics, did I realize the man was crying.
A colleague was trying to comfort him as tears rolled down his cheeks. He was explaining how difficult adjusting to civilian life has been for him.
That’s when I realized the entire purpose of the continuing education requirement: I needed to understand that lens through which Veterans like him might view the world. He isn’t a bad man. He’s actually a good man who is living in a culture with conflicting message and ideals.
That was only one of the many reminders about different lenses that I’ve been getting recently.
For example, I had to change the lens through which I saw a childhood friend whom I’d envied for having everything I didn’t: a sense of style; easy popularity; a beautiful bedroom; horses and even a boat. She recently revealed that her stepfather had molested her for years in the house where I’d spent so many hours. In fact, she had envied me for my ability to express exactly what I was thinking and feeling while she kept everything bottled up.
I’ve had to change the lens through which I view some of the frustrating low-income clients who walk into our office after continually make poor choices. New medical findings show how poverty and childhood stress literally change brain structure.
I’ve had to change the lens through which I perceive people who allude to Fox News or share clips of Sarah Huckabee Sanders citing a recycled email. I have to remind myself to try to see the world through their tinted lens colored by dogma, lack of information, priorities, fear and their beliefs about their own circumstances.
Unlike my daughter, I’m not going to subject myself to a headache by putting on several pairs of real glasses that will make the world blurry. But I am going to try a little harder to look through the lenses that other people choose to share with me.
And in return, I hope they take time to look through mine as well.
I’ve been wanting to write about something that happened to me last Monday, but, up until just now. I haven’t been able to.
I could use the excuse that I’ve been busy (which I have been), but I’ve never before let that prevent me from writing about something so incredibly important.
The real problem hasn’t been lack of time. It’s been a lack of words.
I just don’t know how to write about hate.
You see, last Monday morning, a man came into my office and spewed racist venom at me.
I sat in shock as he got up in my face and yelled at me about using agency money to help Hispanic and black people. He even accused me of not caring about white people. Despite my efforts to be calm with a clearly irrational person, I admit glancing down at my arm and saying, “You do realize that I’m a white person, right?”
He couldn’t hear me. He was too absorbed in his own anger.
And, other than simply waiting out his verbal assault while my colleagues tried to decide what to do, I was powerless.
I can’t imagine how I would have felt if my skin color were darker.
I used to think I understood the problem of racism.
At age five, I cried on the first day of kindergarten when I discovered that I was the only white child in my class on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
But my parents and teacher (who was also white) rushed to my rescue. They had the only other white child in kindergarten transferred into my class so I felt more comfortable. I can only imagine how the man in my office would react if a Hispanic of black family had done something similar for their child.
By first grade, my parents moved our family off the reservation, and my class was full of kids who didn’t make me self-conscious about the color of my skin, eyes, hair or culture. As I moved from childhood into adolescence, I claimed to have experienced racism because I had been one of only two white kids in my kindergarten class.
I hadn’t. My limited experience didn’t even come close. Being a different color doesn’t equate to racism if you still have power. And my family had the power to get me out of a situation that made me feel uncomfortable.
But I didn’t feel as though I had any power last Monday.
I was in an office with no escape as the angry man stood between me and the door. I was in a situation in which reasoning and rational discussion couldn’t resolve the problem. And I was face to face with an individual who truly believed in a social hierarchy based solely on physical characteristics.
No matter how calm my voice was as I repeated the mantra “We care about all people here. We don’t care about their skin color or their religion,” I felt powerless.
When the man finally left, I rehashed the incident with my co-workers, expressed relief that he hadn’t been carrying a weapon, implemented a safety plan and complained that the current political environment is empowering bigots.
But I never doubted my convictions or the words I’d said to him.
He may have tried to intimidate me with his hate, but my words of love actually had more power – of that I have no doubt.
Hate might come knocking on my door. Sometimes, it might even walk in. But I will never, ever allow it to stay.
And knowing that makes me feel incredibly powerful. As it should.