Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rejecting Rejection

"You teach what you most need to learn"--Richard Bach

I like to think I'm pretty good at helping people.

That's mostly empathy--I've got a tonne of it. I hate to see people in pain and I will do whatever I can to alleviate it, even if only a little.
Eva had a saying posted over her cubicle at work, once, and that saying has seeped into my consciousness: "no shame, no blame, FIX THE PROBLEM." In today's vernacular, "it is what it is, now let's make it better".  That lesson has served me well professionally, especially coupled with immediate ownership of my mistakes. "Yes, I screwed up. HOW DO I MAKE THIS RIGHT? Can I make it better than right?" Or if it's somebody else's screw-up, I ignore that entirely: this is the situation, let's resolve it." It's amazing and a little depressing to see people so caught up in who did what and how badly. Never mind. FIX THE PROBLEM.

Many things can't  be fixed, directly: that's a lesson that, as a man, I sometimes still struggle with. I try to listen three times as much as I talk, now, because often it seems like what people really need is a sounding board to bounce their problems off of. Articulate the problem--say it wrong if you have to, then you have something to edit--and sometimes just knowing you're not alone with that problem makes it easier to bear. And if you have a decision to make, just a few well placed questions sometimes brings to light that you've already made it.

After too many years of fears and tears, I'm finally starting to make inroads on helping myself. Because I'm a people too.

I'm not sure what my biggest flaw is, I got a million of 'em. But certainly one of the bigger ones is an almost total lack of self-confidence. That has a deep, deep root that is also pretty wide.

I was actually a pretty confident kid up until the end of third grade. I had reason to be. Kids don't turn on you that young for academic success. I had no problem doing anything in front of a class: piano, singing, storytelling...and not to blow my own horn, toot-toot, but I'm not half bad at any of that. Everything I touched in that third grade seemed to turn to gold. I made a pile of money (for values of "pile" suitably impressive to an eight-year-old in 1980) by designing and selling books of mazes. Most of my fellow students seemed to like me, and those that didn't  (mostly) kept themselves to themselves.

I always tell people that moving and getting glasses between grades three and four derailed my life. Either one of them I could have overcome. Both together were impossible. The culture shock that hit me when I got to London was just...overwhelming--it took years to recover from, and in some ways I haven't quite recovered yet.

But the truth is that I could have seen it coming, and even when it was running me over, I did nothing to get out of the way and in many cases just made it worse.

First, of course, it was my attitude towards getting glasses that hurt me, not the glasses themselves. Granted, my attitude -- "glasses equals nerd" was extremely common in the early eighties, reinforced everywhere I looked, and when you're eight years old you're not quite ready to tell the world to take their attitude and shove it.  But I took it way too far..."if glasses make me a nerd, well, then, I'm going to be the nerdiest nerd in Nerddom." It became a vicious cycle: I just retreated deeper into my books with every passing insult, wedgie, swirlie, or occasional kick to the groin.

Also, the bullying showed up before the glasses did. That's something I'd like to forget. It's not convenient to the way I tell my life's story. But as popular as I was at Georges Vanier school, towards the tail end of grade three I was occasionally targeted, usually by people in higher grades but sometimes by people who just wished they were. Once it was a kid who I'd thought was a friend, or at least friendly. He came up behind me on the playground one day, reached between my legs, and squeezed my balls. If Ian had had an adult's grip strength they'd have popped like balloons. As it was they just sent pure bolts of agony throughout my lower body and left me writhing on the ground, unable to even form the victim's eternal plaintive wail, "WHY?"

Because I felt like it, asshole! Numbnuts! (Well, that one was at least accurate.) Shit-for-brains! Four-eyes! Nerd, dork, spazz, quad, homo faggot dickbrain turdface fairy crybabymoronretardmongoidiotweenie! Wait, they're all accurate. Every last one of them. I didn't know how to block this out. They don't teach you that.

I had one real friend in all those years, starting in fifth grade, and I have no idea how that happened. Nor can I tell you exactly why the bullying petered out, by slow degrees; by grade eleven it was gone entirely, but I still had the social skills of that confident third grader. Didn't serve me well, especially among the ladyfolk. That side of rejection took a few more years to fade, and it left its own scars that throb and ache to this day. Being told how unbelievably ugly and repulsive you are, repeatedly--that takes a toll on a person. On some level you can't help but believe they must be right: I mean, it's not one girl saying things like that, it's pretty much all of them.  There comes a point when one girl dares to care about you and you think "she's crazy, obviously".
It really wasn't until Eva came into my life that I really began to feel understood, let alone loved. Even then, it was (and is, sometimes) a struggle. I really have to give mad props to my wife: over all the time I've known her, she's never once nagged me or tried to change me. Instead, she merely worked tirelessly to create an environment for me in which I wouldn't be afraid to change myself.

For all I'm about to say, I've come a long way. When I first met and married Eva, she was almost the only person alive I felt truly comfortable being around--and even then, only at home, where nobody else could see me. Out socially, I'd  babble inanely until a criticism real or imagined, at which point I'd shut myself into a silent shell, albeit one riddled with nervous tics. And for gawd's sake, don't take a picture of me, that image will burn out your camera.

Most of that is mostly gone now. It sometimes recurs, but not often. What I find frustrating (and no doubt Eva does, too) is that the underlying feelings that spawned all that crap didn't go away, they simply went underground.

It's all still there: the fear that at any moment, I'm going to be rejected. I can pretend it's gone. Weeks go by without me feeling that old self-loathing and I can even convince myself it's gone. And then I'll say "I'm going to try thus-and-such, remodel my life in this way, write that, make friends with her, take that next step. And worthless Ken will pop out and say "you'll fail, you can't remodel shit, people tell you they like your writing to your face but they mostly like laughing at you, she'll hate you because you're unbelievably ugly and repulsive, and hahahahaha, you can't take the next step because you're paralyzed. But that's okay, right? Paralyzed is safe! Isn't that what you've always wanted? To be safe?"


Sorry for the vulgarity...well, actually, no, I'm not. It's not strong enough to express just how much that voice can go to hell. I'm letting an imaginary voice hold me back in so many ways. I'm never going to be cocky, for the simple reason that I believe nobody is any more special than anyone else...but I'm going to claim my own share of special, damnit.

I got half my mouth remodelled yesterday. Seven composite fillings that evened out the teeth on that side; the other side is happening Monday. Eva told me last night, with admiration and a touch of pride, that it had changed my entire face. Just having this done is making it so I don't feel self-conscious smiling at people. That's huge, for me. All by itself, it puts a little spring in my step, makes me feel a little bit better about myself and my prospects.

You want to know why I'm getting tattoos and an earring? I'll tell you. The tattoos are, as tattoos should be, extremely personal and deeply meaningful. One of them symbolizes love without limits, the other denotes fears conquered. I want both those things permanently etched on my body, so that I can look at whichever one needs to be looked at in a given moment and remember: THIS IS WHO I AM.

The earring? It's because then I'll be a man with an earring. It doesn't mean anything...and that's kind of the point. Make of it what you will, I don't care. It's going to get me a little attention...which I am not afraid of. Picked carefully and appropriately, it's going to give my profile just a little bit of interest...because I am an interesting person.

Like I say, I have no intention or desire to turn into some kind of vain prick. I don't think I could if I wanted to, anyway. But I'm sick and tired of feeling paralyzed, of letting myself feel paralyzed, and so screw it: I'm doing several things to show I won't be paralyzed any more.

And I'll still get rejected. Of course I will, we all do from time to time. The difference is that now I'm finally taking to heart what I have so often told others: rejection only puts you where you are, it doesn't knock you on your ass.  The answer to EVERY question is no...until you ask the question. Rejection doesn't hurt! It just means you have to try harder. Or take another path.

You teach what you most need to learn.

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