Curious about J.C. Penney's new no-sale marketing strategy, I popped in with Mama CP to browse through the clothes. There I was minding my own business when a tiny, very elderly woman wandered up and started chattering away at me for no apparent reason. This in and of itself was hardly an unusual occurrence; for most of my life people have randomly come up to me and shared their life stories. It wasn't at all out of the ordinary, then, that the woman shared with me her age - 80 - and that she managed to maintain her youthful appearance by rubbing petroleum jelly all over her body. Let me just tell you, at the top of the list of mental images I never, ever, ever wanted to have was that of an 80-year-old woman slathering herself in petroleum jelly. (Oh, and you're welcome for sharing the image with you. Apparently misery really does love company).
What was unusual was what happened next. "You would be beautiful if you lost weight," she said. "You obviously eat too many potatoes." Say what?! Initially, the only reaction I could summon was uncomfortable laughter. Apparently she saw this as an invitation to continue with her criticism, and kept yammering on and on about how I needed to lose weight... and about how I need to cut back on potatoes. My internal dialogue was something like, "Uh, my deep-seated love for potatoes won't be changing any time soon, so kiss off." What I actually said was, "I enjoy life, and, through some sort of curious magic, you have correctly deduced that I love potatoes." "There's a difference between enjoying life, and eating too much," she said. Tired of listening to her, I finally told her that if I had to eat nothing but lettuce for the rest of my life to look as youthful as her at 80, it simply wouldn't be worth it. "We're done here," I said, and wandered off.
I could tell you that what the woman said to me didn't hurt my feelings, didn't make me feel bad about myself. But it would be a lie. What I can tell you is this: her criticism, unsolicited and unwarranted though it may have been, stung. And for a few minutes, I allowed myself to feel the pain of her words, of her ignorance, of her obvious bitterness. I wallowed in it. (What can I say? I'm a wallower).
And then I let it go. I thought about what she said, about the sting of pain it caused me, and let myself forget about it. Easier said than done, I reminded myself that the opinion of a stranger -- that the opinion of anyone but myself, really -- should not have the power to ruin my day, to alter the way in which I perceive myself, to undermine my self confidence.
When I let go of the sting of her criticism, I found only pity left behind. How sad must her life be -- how sad must any hateful person's life be -- that they have to troll for strangers to insult? I don't know the specifics of her life, and at least as far as I'm concerned, they're irrelevant. All I know is that, instead of wallowing in righteous indignation the way I desperately wanted to, Empathy kicked in and insisted that I try to be understanding (she's pushy that way).
I wanted to share with you this particular incident, because I firmly believe that, regardless of size, ethnicity, gender, sex, or sexual orientation, we've all come face-to-face with hateful people. With all of those voices telling you that you're imperfect, and at the risk of sounding completely hokey, I wanted to take this opportunity to paraphrase Darcy from Bridget Jones (the movie version): you're perfect... just as you are. Be the person you want to be for you, not for the hateful people in the world who think you should be someone else.
I was reading some of Gerald Manley Hopkins's poetry and essays recently, and was struck all over again by his idea of "inscapes," those internal qualities and characteristics that give each thing it's uniqueness. A bunny, for example, has a unique set of characteristics that lend it it's "bunny-ness." Revel in your you-ness, my friend, and know that you're unique, wonderful, and oh-so amazing precisely the way you are.