Gulls at Mead (Photo credit: Tj Parker Photography)
So much of how we see ourselves is based on how our peers, our friends, our family, and our community sees us. Yes, if you are a person with good self-esteem you can be in the world as a more confident, relaxed, grounded individual. But even the most secure person struggles, at times, with how they think other people see them. We are constantly being influenced by what our friends, family, and society think of us. Whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, whether we admit it or not. We carry those opinions, thoughts, comments, with us throughout the course of our lives. Little voices of disapproval or questions about our actions, our look, and our direction pop up occasionally as annoying ghosts in our minds. It happens to me.
I’m a pretty relaxed confident person in that I don’t care much what others think of me. OK, more accurately, I may care a bit, but I don’t let that influence the decisions I make and the way I am in my every day life. Most of the time. Keyword — most. It’s strange how those little voices come up at the strangest of times. How those negative experiences, comments, criticisms, stay with us over time, no matter how hard we try to exorcise them from our heads and our lives.
When I was a kid I spent a significant amount of time with my paternal grandmother. She loved me so much, treated me so well. She was not a nice person. As I grew I realized she didn’t treat my brother as well as she treated me. She called him names, excluded him from activities, made comments about him. When I realized this I slowly stopped spending time with her. I loved her, but she wasn’t good to him and I loved him. It was my little way of standing up to her, and my not wanting to be around that sort of behavior and negativity. Even as a kid I felt that stuff profoundly. Negative emotion, action, etc. I can’t stomach it. No matter how many toys you buy me. My aunt, who was this same grandmother’s daughter and my dad’s sister, didn’t get along that great with her own mother because of this playing favorites type of mentality. Yet, she was her. Maybe it was to make up for how my grandmother was, but my aunt, who treated my brother like a little prince, was not nice. She was not nice to me. She called me names, excluded me from activities, and made comments about me. Once, when my brother and I were at her house we were eating a meal. She looked at me and said, “you eat like such a pig”. Bam. There it was. That moment changed me a little bit forever.
For years, and even still once in a while, that little line pops into my head. Because of that line when I was a teen and a young adult I never liked eating in front of people. I was so self-conscious, always afraid people would see the pig in me. The pig that she’d noticed and pointed out. The pig that in reality didn’t exist, but existed after her comment so much in my head and my heart.
I grew, and grew out of those feelings. My self-esteem took a long time (for not just this reason of course) to grow and blossom, but it did. I realized it was her problem and that I had never been a pig, but it informed so much of how I was in the world for so long. Perceptions. Judgements. Those ideas other people have of us and those we have of ourselves can be cruel and are often wrong. I saw myself as a pig because she’d seen me that way.
We tell ourselves internal stories. Stories about ourselves, about our world, about the people we see all around us — friends, family, strangers. We do this all the time. It’s how we explain things, people, interactions, relationships, to ourselves. These stories, told as a constant monologue in our heads, are our way of explaining our world to ourselves. This is what that means, this is what that looks like, this is how this or that person must be, and on and on. They are really just our stories, even if they are about other people, because they are based solely on our own thoughts and experiences. Our experience of ourselves, our histories, the path we’ve been on. Our experiences inform our stories. Always.
We can never, and I repeat, NEVER, know another person’s story. Not really. We think we do, we assume things and place expectations on every other person we know, see, and meet, based on what’s happened in our own lives, based on what we’ve been told, and based on what we’ve been through ourselves. But these stories and assumptions and ideas about people are false truths. We get arrogant and judgmental and place unfair expectations on others based on what we think we know of them, what we think we see, or what we think we would do in their place. Instead of really knowing what we’re talking about we often fill in the blank with our own ideas of a person or a situation. These ideas coming from, again, what our own thoughts and experiences have told us must be true. We, as humans, do this all the time. I do it all the time. I try not to. I fail.
To look at another person and automatically assume you know what they should do, how they are as a person, or how they should act, is arrogant. To hear about another person, another group, and assume things about them without having any real interaction with them is wrong and it’s sad. It’s harmful to them, to ourselves, and harmful to the world. It automatically separates us from each other instead of connecting us. Any time judgement seeps into a thought, a conversation, an opinion, we’ve lost a bit of ourselves. We’ve lost a bit of humanity.
This is not a particularly flattering story to tell on myself, but here I go none the less. Years ago I worked at a prison for kids. This particular one was called a youth correctional facility, but it was a prison. I’d just turned 23, and a few months earlier had graduated from college with a degree in psychology. I fancied myself as liberal, open, and non-judgmental. Part of the orientation were these little tours of the different units at the facility. One of those units, a place called the Secure Intensive Treatment Program, was on the tour. This particular unit, which I would end up working at three years later, after a lot more experience, was where the kids who’d committed murder and attempted murder were housed. Basically it was what would be called maximum security in an adult prison. I walked in there with expectation, pre-conceived notions, and prejudices I wasn’t even aware I had. When I walked in I thought I didn’t have any prejudice, any judgement of others. By the time I walked out I knew I was sadly and shockingly wrong about myself.
Part of the tour of this particular unit, other than a staff member telling me about what they did there, was a tour of the unit by a kid who lived there. I heard this from the staff and immediately started looking around at the kids in the unit. There were all sorts of kids there, pretty much all races and ethnic backgrounds represented. In my mind I zeroed in on this one particular kid. I’m not sure why. He was big, and gruff looking, and African-American. I was instantly afraid of him. There were other kids there that pretty much fit his same description, but I kept saying in my head, please don’t let my tour guide be that kid. Any other kid, but not him. Fate has a sense of humor. The staff couldn’t read my mind, but sure enough, he ended up being the kid the staff picked out to show me around. I introduced myself, he introduced himself, and off we went to the various parts of the program. He was soft-spoken, thoughtful, and explained the ins and outs of the place with wonderful perspective and detail. I liked him instantly.
My experience, which was non-existent with criminals, very limited with African-Americans, on the fringe with people who were gruff looking, and nil with teen felons, filled in a story about this kid. Before I even started talking to him I thought, I assumed, I knew who he was and because of those perceptions and assumptions I was afraid of him. I was sure he would be dismissive and sarcastic and intimidating. Sure of it. I knew he would be scary to talk to and deal with. I couldn’t have been more wrong and I learned a big lesson that day. A lesson about myself and about how we see our fellow humans without even knowing them. How we judge without having any real experience, the experience which then lets us know someone and understand them. Let’s us see them honestly, and in a real way.
These are the traps, the stories, and the falsehoods we find ourselves in. We go there all the time. Intentionally or unintentionally. I know I do. I don’t mean to. I try to be my better self, but I know I don’t always succeed.
The homeless are many in Portland, where I used to live. When I was a kid visiting Portland for various activities at various times they were called bums (which speaks a lot to our judgmental nature as people). Later on, when I was an adult living in Portland there’d be the every so often news story about the homeless problem. I used to avoid them at all costs, try not to look them in the eye, and generally sort of pretend they didn’t exist. I assumed I understood them, knew things about them, without knowing them at all. Harsh, but true. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. On the other hand I was always sensitive to kids who lived on the street. I worked with teens and had (still have) a soft spot for them. I don’t know why but I’ve always loved that at risk youth population. They are tough and vulnerable and resilient and sensitive. Many are just downright amazing. I had experience with homeless teens so when I saw a homeless kid on the street I often gave them some change, said hello, acknowledged them in some way. I looked them in the eye and I saw them. Adults living on the street — that was different for me. I had no experience with them, other than what the media portrayed and what I’d heard other people say, so I’d avoid eye contact and walk quickly past to avoid any sort of interaction that might happen. I didn’t really see them at all. Where’s the humanity in that?
Things changed, my perceptions were altered, when on my second date with K we met a homeless woman. We were sitting outside at a café having coffee. The date had been going on for a while. We were having great conversation, enjoying each other. I saw this homeless woman half a block away, heading our direction. She hadn’t noticed me yet so I did what I always did, I avoided her gaze, I looked away. But as fate would have it, she approached us anyway and asked for money for coffee. I didn’t know what to say, hemming and hawing, looking around, being generally uncomfortable. But K — she rocked it out. She looked at the woman, in the eyes, and said that she wouldn’t give her money but she’d buy her a coffee. The woman said she didn’t like the coffee from the place we were sitting in front of and wanted the money so she could buy it elsewhere. K offered to walk down the street with her to buy her coffee at another place. The woman still refused and again asked for money. K then offered up her own cup of coffee to the woman, who again refused and then walked away. The point of this is I learned a great lesson that day, one of many from the woman who is now my wife. Compassion, interaction, and most importantly — acknowledgement. K saw that woman. She interacted with her. She didn’t avoid or dismiss or shun. She engaged and talked in a meaningful and genuine way. I loved her all the more for that. And I learned something from her. Now, when I see a homeless person, I see them. I look them in the eye, I say hello. I now, because of real experience, see the homeless as people. People whose stories I don’t really know. People whose experiences, the experiences that led to their homelessness in the first place, I have no way of knowing and definitely no right to judge.
I was perusing the internet the other day and came across a video of a homeless veteran who had agreed to do a little exercise with a crew of people from a ministry who have made it their mission to work with, help, and try to enrich the lives of homeless veterans. They did a time-lapse video of the exercise. In it they cut and colored his hair, trimmed his beard, and put a new set of clothes on him. He couldn’t see himself until after the transformation has happened. Finally, when they were done they brought out a huge mirror and showed him to himself. He was stunned, mouthing the word wow before he got up and hugged a member of the team.
Seeing this video started me thinking, which led to this blog post. This guy, who in the beginning looked exactly like what you’d expect a homeless person to look like, looked like a CEO of a company when they were done with him. A haircut and a change of clothes is all that really happened, but it changed the perception of him. Ours and his own.
We carry what others think of us, say about us, and the judgements they make of us around inside of ourselves. Those thoughts and judgements always end up incorporating themselves into our lives, into the framework that makes up who we think we are. It happens to each of us and when it does it makes us uncomfortable, chiseling away at our foundations, even though we try to keep those judgements at bay. Yet, we turn around and do it to others. We see people, groups, other humans and we think we know them, without knowing them. We make up stories about them without hearing their stories. We judge, without knowing anything about their real experiences.
We should know better. We obviously don’t know better. We should strive to do better.
Maybe if we think the best of the people around us, they will think the best of themselves. Maybe if we work hard at being interested and connected with people they will be interested and connected. Maybe if we treat each other with kindness and compassion instead of judgement and accusation they will be more kind and compassionate. Maybe, just maybe, if we treat people as human beings, they will be more human. And maybe just the act of being more connected, and compassionate, and kind, and human gives us each a bit more humanity. Maybe if we listen more and judge less the stories we tell ourselves will contain more fact than fiction.