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Who Told You You Were Less Than? [Cruelty, Forgiveness and Why I wouldn't go back to middle school if you paid me.]

Posted May 04 2011 11:14pm

Image Source: Imaginary Foundation

Do you remember the first time you were made to feel less than? You aren’t born knowing that. It was because somebody told you. As a mother , once of the first things I noticed about my tiny children is how everything they do, everything they are, is the most wonderful magic to them. Toes wiggling? Magnificent! Ears hearing? Miraculous! Chubby tummies gurgling? Delicious! Eyelashes? So spectacular that they must pull one out to get a better look at it. (And then they cry as one is wont to do when one discovers that plucking your own hair is a painful pastime.) This knowledge isn’t individual; every child has it – it’s what makes childhood so special. Don’t believe me? Watch a baby toot bubbles in the bathtub and I guarantee you will both laugh until you cry. Even gas is magical.

But of course you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. This stripping down is a gradual – and likely necessary, no use bemoaning the inevitable – process. It is the pain of a thousand paper cuts, as they say. It is the pain of a thousand cardboard paper cuts, as I say. (Have you ever had a cardboard paper cut? Toe-curling pain. Just worse than biting your tongue but not quite as bad as falling out of a hammock and landing face first on a concrete driveway. And now you know how I got the bump in my nose .)

I remember a time, certainly not the first time, when I was diminished. Blind as a bat, I finally got glasses in the 5th grade – about 3 years later than I needed them, so astonished was I when I put them on and discovered that all those squiggles on signs were actually words. They were giant clear plastic frames with neon pink and blue racing stripes. It was the 80′s. My first day wearing them (and my first day being able to read all the cuss words inked onto Jessie Gilman’s jean jacket), a girl came up to me in the lunch room. “Those are the ugliest glasses I have ever seen,” she declared. “But I guess they fit since you are the ugliest girl I’ve ever seen.” With that she laughed loudly, tossed her poodle-permed hair over her shoulder and for her final act, dumped her lunch tray complete with sloppy joe and open pudding cup into the top of my Esprit bag. Everyone laughed as I tried frantically to scrape the muck off of my carefully completed homework.

I remember a time, certainly not the first time, when I did the diminishing. As if the first year of middle school isn’t awkward enough, the powers that be decreed that our mixed gender gym class do a unit on swimming. Whether to even the playing field or to provide years of entertainment for our P.E. teacher I’ll never know but we all had to wear dingy blue polyester swimsuits from the ’60′s. (Inexplicably the girls’ suits had a weird double layer on the front that made an open pocket you could stick your arm all the way through.) They were sorted by size. Then we had to suffer the indignity as our teacher sized us up in front of everyone else and handed us a suit that would be as loose as Shar-pei skin as soon as it got wet. Paul, for reasons I cannot remember but I’m sure were spurious, was not well liked. So when he went up to claim his trunks I stage whispered that he should have to wear a girl’s suit since he had more boobs than most of us. It was not at all clever. And yet everyone laughed. I was so proud of myself for making everyone laugh that I didn’t even notice as he hid away, not to be coaxed into the pool that day by even the meanest threat to his grade.

Since then I have been laid low by far worse than Bill Cosby’s favorite dessert and, even more sadly, I have taken others down with far more cruelty than ill-fitting polyester. So what is the point of recounting two stories that to this day make me cringe so badly I can barely type them? This week I had two interesting conversations. One was about this article “ Stop that Sh*t ” by Fat Heffalump, sent to me by Reader Ruth. The other was “ The Complete Guide to Not Giving a F*ck ” by Julien Smith. Both have profanities in the titles and both are excellent reads but other than that at first glance they seem to be complete opposites.

The first article talks about why snarking about other people is harmful. Sure it can hurt the other person – if they hear it – but even more it hurts the person saying it. She quotes Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby’s book Lessons from the Fat-o-sphere ,

“At some point in your adult life, you’ve probably walked into a party and felt a frisson of relief upon discovering at least one woman there who was fatter, uglier, and/or dressed more inappropriately than you. We sure have. But if you want to have any hope of making peace with your own body, you need to knock that sh*t off.”

After explaining how “stop that sh*t” as become her new mantra she quotes Harding and Kirby again,

“We’re not even telling you to stop just because it’s nasty, petty, and beneath you to judge other women so harshly; it is, but because you’re not a saint, and neither are we. We’re telling you to stop because it’s actually in your own self-interest to stop being such a b*tch. ‘Cause you know what happens when you quit saying that crap about other women? You magically stop saying it about yourself so much, too.”

The second article is about how to stop caring about what other people think of you. Julien lists four salient facts: 1) People are judging you right now, 2) You don’t need everyone to like you, 3) It’s your people who matter, and 4) Those who don’t care what others think change the world. He writes,

“I have spent almost my whole life– 31 years–  caring far too much about offending people, worrying if I’m cool enough for them, or asking myself if they are judging me. I can’t take it anymore. It’s stupid, and it’s not good for my well being. It has made me a punching bag–  a flighty, nervous wuss. But worse than that, it has made me someone who doesn’t take a stand for anything. It has made me someone who stood in the middle, far too often, and not where I cared to stand, for fear of alienating others. No more.”

He also lists four really good tips for learning how to not care so much about other’s opinions (boy howdy do I love tip #1!) but I would add one more to his list and it’s this: forgiveness.

See, mocking others and worrying excessively about what others think are two sides of the same vicious coin. A coin, that if we’re really honest with ourselves, we’ve spent plenty of time flipping. And so it is for this reason that it is necessary to forgive others – before they even do it, if you can just make it a blanket policy – for their cruelty. Because their cruelty mirrors our own, making it equally as important that we forgive ourselves. Forgiveness isn’t absolution; it’s learning. Learning how when we love others, we learn to love ourselves and when we love ourselves we naturally love others.

You know that voice that sometimes whispers you were created for better than this? Listen to it. Every time you are brought low by the arrows of others or the tempests of an ungentle life, remember it. Every time you are tempted to laugh at a failed other or crop the tallest poppy, remember it. Every time you feel less than, no matter how you came to that dark place, remember it. You were created for better than this.

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