Monday, May 15, 2017

A Teflon Skin

Allow me to set the scene for you: It's mid-May, in the year 2017, I'm in a lovely town in a mid-Atlantic state in the United States of America.  The sun is out, the sky is blue, a catered lunch is about to be served, and everyone is joyfully milling about in pastel florals and lightweight suits.  I'm leaning down to find my table number card when out of nowhere...

WHAM!!!!! I'm smacked across the face with blatant, discriminatory, personally pinpointed, directed fully toward me racism.

This is no joke.  When it happened I was so stunned I couldn't breathe for a moment.  Several moments actually.  While it's not important what was said, what is important was that it had to do with my being unwelcome there, the person's offense that I was in his presence, and that he thought his remarks were terribly terribly funny.

2017. The United States of America.

For some background, this is person that I've actually known for many years.  While I do not know him well, we have been in each other's lives enough for him to have been on the receiving end of my family's generosity for things like like the loss of his wife, a house move, a significant birthday, etc.  This is NOT the first time he has been prejudicial and pejorative to me; the times before making it abundantly clear that he would have been proud to wear a brown shirt overseas in the early 1940s.

Yikes.

Enough about him though - he's not worth the time or the effort it takes to type his description.  What I do want to talk about here is: What do we do when we're faced with brazen, unabashed prejudice and racism? Aimed at ourselves or at others. Not what "should" we do, but what do we DO?

Firstly I just want to say that I have never understood racism and I never will.  For every single human being on the Earth the following things are true:

1. When a human being is cut by a sharp object he or she bleeds blood and it's the color red.

Every. Single. Human. Being.

2. When a human being has dust fly up his or her nose, he or she sneezes.  Involuntarily.

Every. Single. Human. Being.

3. If a human being's heart stops beating, he or she dies.

Every single time. Every. Single. Human. Being.

4. At some point during every day a human being will need to rid itself of waste matter that his or her body has generated.  So he or she will urinate.

Every. Single. Human. Being.

5. If a new human being is going to be created, it can only be created one way.  No matter what color, what race, what genetic makeup, or what religion is observed. There are different methods to achieve this conception, but it can literally only be created one way.

Every. Single. Human. Being.

Obviously I could go on, but the point is that, with rare exception, every single human being has more things going on in it that are the same as other human beings than things going on in it that are different.  We may think differently, we may love differently, we may grieve differently, but on the most basic level, every single human being's bodily functions are the same.  I would add, in my opinion, that every single human being on the planet wants to live without fear, without discrimination, without neglect, and without indifference. I would argue that just about every human being on some level wants to feel love, to feel seen, to feel joy, and be free to live the life he or she believes he or she is meant to live.

So if we're more alike than we are different, why do so many people hate each other?

I believe it's because every single human being was also given a brain which generates thoughts and ideas and conceptions and opinions.  It's when these opinions differ (even down to "I think you shouldn't exist and you think you should") that the problems arise.  And more often than not, a person will have certain thoughts or understandings based on what they were taught in childhood, the same way they were taught to walk or dress or feed themselves.  For some, prejudice is as ingrained in them as breathing, and for others, tolerance is built and fostered instead.

But that's about who's on the giving end.  What about those of us on the receiving end of the racial slurs and unmitigated narrow-mindedness? How do we handle them in a way that doesn't give the bullies the satisfaction of our acceptance and us believing that what they say is true?

Well, one way is to not take anything someone else says personally. Ever. Good or bad, whatever someone else says about you is merely their opinion of you, it is never who you actually are. When an epithet is aimed directly at you, channel Jackie Robinson and duck so you don't get hit.  Cover yourself in figurative Teflon so the barbs simply bounce off and don't stick.  Remember the schoolyard saying, "I'm rubber and you're glue. Everything you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!"  If you don't take on what the offender is trying to put onto you, then they are stuck alone with their misery and overwhelming need to feel superior.  Have you ever met a calm, content, or peaceful racist?  No, because they are so churned up with their hate and intolerance that they can't relax and enjoy their lives.  They have to scream and shout and burn crosses and hold pitchforks to get the debasement out of themselves and onto others.  The bigot's bigotry is less about the victim than it is about their own low self-esteem and the sheer discomfort they suffer by having to live in their own skin every day.

Another way to handle these horrible people is to speak up.  In dangerous situations we're told to keep quiet, to not make a scene, and to just try to get out of the situation alive. But in the non-violent situations where astonishingly inappropriate things are said, if someone stands up to the bully, there's a chance that the bully will become aware of the offensiveness of his or her actions and want to change. While I would expect on some level that the person who recently tried to offend me would somehow realistically see that what was said was utterly and completely discriminatory, I now know that he actually believed what he said was funny, and believed I would think it was funny too.  He's so unbelievably ignorant that it's remotely possible that if his egregious offensiveness was pointed out to him, he might have a tiny bit of remorse about it. (But between you and me I doubt it, and the realization wouldn't stop him from saying it again.)

Whether or not you speak up against offenders, either on your own behalf or on those of others, the most important thing is: DO NOT TAKE IT ON AND DO NOT TAKE IT IN.

IT'S NOT YOURS AND IT NEVER WAS.  DO NOT TAKE IT ON AND DO NOT TAKE IT IN. 

If you have brown eyes and someone says, "Wow, those are some ugly blue eyes you have," you would look at them like they were nuts and think "Really? What a stupid and ridiculous thing to say."  If you're seven feet tall and someone says, "It's a shame that you're so short," you would think, "Seriously? You're kidding, right?"  If someone puts you down in a racist or prejudicial way then it's no different.  No matter what they say, if they are treating you as less of a 100% human being then it's as silly and absurd as calling a blond-haired person a brunette.  It's not true, it makes no sense, and just because someone says it does not make it accurate, valid, or credible.

If you've never had prejudice assigned to you then there's no possible way you can understand what it feels like. But if you have then you know how difficult it is to hear and to try to let it bounce off of you without taking it in.  We can quote Eleanor Roosevelt ("No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.") as much as we want but there's a reason why the "rubber-glue" and "sticks and stones" rhymes were devised on those playgrounds long ago.  Because words can injure souls, and when we get made fun of or disparaged for nothing but the way we were made then we don't have many built-in defenses against that.

As for myself, I'm putting this latest incident behind me and moving forward because I do not want to spend one more second of my life thinking about this person or what was said to me.  And because I really do believe that what goes around comes around, I can be grateful that I am who I am and that I do not have the burden of carrying that person's heavy and damaged heart around for every beleaguered step of life.  All I can control is myself, my own actions and my own reactions.  Ultimately the racist is going to be more affected by his words and actions than I am, because I have the choice to not accept them. But if racism and prejudice are parts of what make up a person, then they will never truly experience happiness or peace.

As for myself, I'll choose joy and happiness, fulfillment and contentment, sympathy and empathy, serenity and peace. But never the path of least resistance to get there.






Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Choices We Make

I have repeated this quote more than once here on my blog:

"Change your thoughts and you change your world." -Norman Vincent Peale

Here is another quote, courtesy of Bill, the amazingly nice guy who works at the post office:
"Happiness is a choice."

Thank you Bill. I was reminded of both of these today while going through a situation that could have  easily gone two different ways.  I could have ended up feeling angry, annoyed, upset and frustrated, or, I could have found myself feeling cheerful, grateful, content, and peaceful.

I surprised myself and went for the latter. Here's what happened:

Without going into too much detail I will say that I was disrespected for the umpteenth time where I volunteer.  My supervisor did something, which she does often, which showed me again her complete and utter disregard for my time, my going above and beyond what's expected, and for all that I have done (without compensation) over the past 5 years there.

(I should say here that I am not the only volunteer who feels this way.  Because this person is so wrapped up in her own issues and is mentally unable to be considerate of other people's time and lives, I was fully aware that what happened was not a deliberate act of malice toward me. It was just a result of her usual carelessness and overall indifference for anyone else's needs or feelings.)

At this moment, when this thing happened yet again, I realized that I had a choice in how I was going to handle it.  I could give in to the feelings of anger, disappointment, annoyance, and disrespect that were bubbling up in my stomach, OR, I could make the choice to consciously change my mind about the situation and turn those knee jerk reactions into contentment, calm, acceptance, and peace.

I considered my situation and the choices I had (basically to stick around and do my job or stomp off in a huff) and I thought about what I wanted to fill my body with and what I would be projecting to the world when I did that.  I got out of my head and took a moment to actually look around and take in the reality of my surroundings. When I did that it was like a switch got flipped inside of myself.  I flipped the switch to "choose happiness" and the ire that had been foaming inside me settled down into serenity.  While couldn't change the circumstances, I realized that I could accept them, and then move forward into what would be the best and healthiest scenario for me.

To clarify, I wasn't being physically or emotionally harmed, I wasn't just accepting abuse or prejudice - that I would not do.  But I realized that I was experiencing a first world problem* and the only person hurting me at that moment was myself.  My supervisor had done her thing, she was over it and had moved on, so if I chose to spend the next few hours simmering in my own frustration, I had no one to blame but myself.  So I stuck around and did my job and every time I saw her I reminded myself that I could only control my own actions and no one else's.

Amazingly, right before I left she apologized for her actions, at which point I made another choice. Honestly, I was so fed up that I wanted to chew her out and call out every single infraction from the past few years, ending with this final frustrating straw.  But instead I graciously accepted her apology and went on my way. I left the place feeling peaceful and a little proud of how I handled the whole situation. What happened next astounded me.

As composed as I was feeling emotionally, physically this whole internal dissonance was wreaking having with my stomach.  Because I had spent a good hour with all of the negative stuff building up inside me, I was feeling a bit nauseous and off-kilter constitutionally. Coca-cola usually tends to settle my uneasy gut so even though I've been doing limited carbs and sugar lately, I went in search of a Coke.  On my way I passed by Panera and remembered that I still had my free birthday pastry to claim if it hadn't expired yet.  So I went in, handed the cashier my card, and to my delight she told me that not only was my free birthday treat still on there, but it was also free bagel month and I was entitled to a free bagel as well.

Needless to say, after my recently exhausting experience I was ecstatic.  I said something like, "Who-hooo! This is great! You just made my day!" The cashier must have picked up on my palpable joy because after I picked out my 2 carb-laden snacks she held out an empty cup and said, "Here, have a drink. It's on me."

I was stunned.  Seriously.  I wanted a soda to help make myself feel better and here she was handing me free one.  I mean, WOW!  I felt like the universe was giving a me high five for handling the situation gracefully and healthily, rather than in my old way, by which I would still be angry and upset about it several hours later and carrying around huge amounts of negativity and indignation.

Did my supervisor behave inappropriately and disrespectfully? Absolutely. Did I have every right to be angry and annoyed? I believe the answer to that is a resounding "yes." But I was not being purposely or personally victimized or mistreated.  I was merely on the receiving end of her typical forgetfulness and inconsiderate attitude toward others. She messed up yet again, it affected me yet again, but ultimately it was my choice to let someone else's impudence and ineptitude interfere with the joy and peace that I try to cultivate in my life. Or not.

We have these choices every moment of every day.  Any time we have to deal with an annoying or less-than-ideal situation we get to make the choice of how we're going to handle it. And even if we have every right to be angry or exasperated, we have to decide if that's how we want to go through our day, or if we want to consciously make another choice.  It's natural to feel displeasure, and sometimes it's important to feel those necessary feelings.  But we can allow ourselves to work through them and then choose to let them go instead of hanging onto them long after the catalytic situation is over.  Your choices are always your own, and more often than not we get a confirmation that we've made the right ones.  Sometimes it's in the laughter you hear from the people around you, sometimes it's a hug from a loved one, and sometimes, when you're really lucky, it's a free Coke when you really really need one.



*What I want to add about first world problems is this: So often people will classify things as "First World Problems," meaning that they really aren't anything to get upset about, especially when compared to the other, often horrendous, actual life-or-death problems that other people have to deal with. I completely subscribe to looking at our minor annoyances this way because it keeps them in perspective and gets us out of our own heads where things can be magnified. But there is also something to be said for having enough skin in the game of your life that you take things seriously, and that you care enough to let something bother you, even for a short time. I remember many years ago we had house cleaners who broke a pair of treasured candleholders I had.  They were not worth a lot of money, but I really liked them, and since I had gotten them at Home Goods a few years prior they were virtually irreplaceable.  I remember complaining to one of my friends about it and saying, "I know, they're just things," to which she responded passionately, "Yeah, but they're YOUR things! No one has a right to be careless with your things, you have every right to be upset about this!" And you know what? She was right.  Yes, they were only things, but I was engaged enough in my life and in surrounding myself with things that I liked to look at and that brought me joy that I was upset when someone else took them from me.  I CARED. I'm not someone who angers easily or who takes a lot of opportunities to be annoyed by things, but when I do choose to get upset it reminds me that I'm a person who is fully living life, jumping in with both feet, and investing in every moment with my emotions and spirit and vigor.  I would much rather live my life that way, as opposed to the people I know who just cruise along on an even keel, without any ups or downs at all.  Again, I don't want to hold onto things that make me upset, but feeling them at the time is another life-affirming experience that we each get to have in our time here on Earth.