“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Have you judged someone’s attitudes and actions without knowing or contemplating where they are in their lives? Have you lashed out at someone without feeling his or her pain first? It’s an ugly characteristic, but one I have succumbed to way too often in my life. Atticus Finch is not only my favorite literary character but a role model setting an ethical standard I admire, a standard that I’ve found lacking in my life. Most recently, I found myself coming up short and causing pain to others and to myself. Let me explain. Maybe you will see something of yourself in here and can stop your tongue faster than I did!
I live a series of contradictions. I’m loud and talkative but actually introverted. I try to surround myself with people and things that will uplift. I collect quotes, sayings, and verses that are joyful. But I suffer from depression that leaves me on the floor seeking some way of getting up. I’ve been told that I am seen as confident, bold, and outspoken. I’ve had people tell me that I intimidated them when we first met. That has always surprised me because it came most often from people who intimidated me! Contrary to the way I seem, I know that I am always insecure, usually scared, and quite often reluctant to really voice what is on my mind on many subjects – especially personal ones. I express myself better with written words than spoken ones where nothing comes out right and I just get tongue-tied and embarrassed.
I try very, very hard to live my life with kindness, generosity, empathy, and compassion. And yet there are times that I know just how far short of that I come. I hold back to protect myself from hurt. I judge. I have some hot-button issues that give rise to anger and set my mouth into gear long before the brain is engaged. I am suddenly this fierce, angry, immovable force. At these moments I say things that are far from kind and compassionate. If I don’t say anything, I seethe. And in either case, I stew. That means that just because I’ve managed to stop talking and have even walked away, it might not be over in my heart and soul.
As I said, I have issues. They are hard-wired to a button with a hair-trigger. Stomping on that button will set off a reaction before I can stop it. When I’m really low, just nudging that button will do it. Then it will fester and the reaction can come back around days later, weeks later, and might live inside me for years. I have a great deal of trouble going back and talking to the people who have received the wrath, apologizing or explaining myself. It would involve vulnerability and the dropping of protective walls that I’m not ready to abandon. Maybe not able to abandon. But I’m trying to at least acknowledge and explain here to some extent.
The irony of these responses is that they are caused not by some righteous anger but by the weaknesses that have led me to being hurt in the past. They are directly linked to the insecurity and fear that have made most of the decisions in my life.
I’ve worked through some of the issues to the point where I can take a deep breath and think before I respond. I can then usually push past or ignore things. That doesn’t mean I won’t come back and revisit it later, but if I get beyond the initial knee-jerk reaction, I usually won’t go back and bring up the issue. There is, however, part of my sense of self garnered over the years that I have not worked through and I guess that is because it is far more deeply ingrained and dangerous to me.
Lots of forces over the years led me into adulthood feeling “less than.” Less than strong. Less than athletic. Less than graceful. Less than acceptable. Less than intelligent.
I have long ago accepted my two left feet, lack of athleticism, and awkwardness. My dad’s jokingly calling me “Baby Huey” as I got taller and more awkward took their toll, but overall I’ve come to terms with that. I wish I could dance, but I can’t. I would love to enjoy physical activity and athletics. I know it would be really good for me, but it’s just not going to happen. Maybe I accept those because, while I know that they are true, they don’t mean that much to me in the grand scheme of things. I look at them as talents that I don’t have rather than as defining who I am.
It is the other two that combine to still hurt and rule my day-to-day living and cause the problem. They aren’t about talents but about who I am intrinsically, ultimately, innately. The feeling of being less than acceptable and less than intelligent have to do with many, many things from childhood onward that I won’t go into here. The first is a constant struggle. I’m not sure I’ll ever lose that. I take everything personally and feel every little slight. I never quite feel like I fit in or measure up. I know I have good friends. I know they invite me to join them doing things. But what you know and what your insecurities tell you aren’t always the same thing.
Feeling less than intelligent came along with the lack of confidence felt when you already feel like you don’t fit in. Again, I won’t go into the things over the course of my life that led me to believing a narrative that I was being fed, but I know this is not true. I may not be accepted but I am not stupid. I will tell you where I drew the line in the sand.
I lived with someone whose favorite description of me was “stupid as hell.” I should have stuck up for myself and put a stop to it from the start. However, I went into that relationship with self-doubt that was fed and grew there. It hurt and part of me wanted to scream “I AM NOT STUPID!” But I wasn’t sure enough of myself. I didn’t want to chance being rejected so when he asked sarcastically if I had actually gone to college, I would jokingly say things like “no they let me teach because I’m cute.” Most often I said nothing.
I can remember growing up hearing people say that abused women “liked” being abused or “wanted it.” When I did some reading on the topic, I learned of the toll that is taken on the self-confidence and the very essence of who these women were. I learned that they came to believe they deserved to be mistreated. And I understood how that could happen. They were often beaten down physically but were ALWAYS beaten down emotionally and mentally.
This man never hit. He never had rages. But he steadily put me down and insulted me. I didn’t speak up. I didn’t stand up for myself. I took it in and came to believe it. When we split up, I wasn’t sure how I would ever survive on my own and take care of my son even though I knew I had a job that would allow us to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. I was surprised when people told me afterward that they had never understood the attraction I had for him because they knew I was much smarter than he was!
As I took the time to heal and reflect, I realized my role in what happened. My silence and acquiescence allowed him to continue and led to my acceptance of his words as truth. And I overcompensated for it. I swore that I would never, ever allow anyone to call me stupid or insinuate I lacked intelligence again. And I don’t. I stop it cold. And I often do it with a rage and outrage that I’m sure seem outsized to others. Over the years I’ve tried to tame it with varying degrees of success. When I’m in the throes of a depressive bout or when other circumstances have combined with it, however, I’m not quite in control of that anger. And anger unchecked leads to behavior that often hurts others.
I know that in my efforts to take care of myself I have pushed people away. I don’t care if I have pushed them away if they truly meant to treat me as “lesser than” and insult me. But I know that sometimes that wasn’t really their intent. I sometimes listen to their words without listening to their hearts. It happened recently with a long-time friend whose words came from a place of pain and anger – anger not with me but with God and life and the world. Even though I have been in a bad bout with the depression, I responded without truly being in a rage, but I’m sure my anger showed.
His bitter response, in turn, caused me to feel the pain and anguish he’s been living with. I know I didn’t cause it. I know I can’t really do much to alleviate his suffering. But now the kind, compassionate heart I talked about as I started this post is broken for him. And because I couldn’t hold my tongue, see his anguish within that attitude, and love him through his hurt, I caused him more pain. I caused me more too, because I feel very guilty for having added to his suffering.
That’s what happens when we look inward only. Unfortunately for those suffering from depression, it is a trap we fall into and have to constantly be vigilant about. I wasn’t on guard and now two people pay the price for it.