Four times I’ve tried writing this. May I at long last scratch a version up and hit ‘publish’.
Last fall, I attended a writing workshop. This was a big step for me. It cost big cash, and I would need to travel to another town and back before my son’s child care ended.
When I arrived, I was delighted to find a gorgeous venue and two people I already knew and liked. And free coffee! So far, so good.
It went downhill from there. The facilitator required us not to write, nor to read, but to do an oral exercise with a partner, first with each other and then in front of the group. I did my best, and my best wasn’t awesome. That’s okay by me! Spontaneous verbal work is about as far from my ability as we get, and I had truly given it my best shot.
But my partner—a complete stranger—was cruel and tricky from the get go. I couldn’t understand why he was being such a jerk—this wasn’t part of the exercise, and no one else in the room was taking this bizarre approach. Unfortunately, when I come across jerkness, my response is invariably confusion. I’m not angry, not assertive, not able to navigate it at all. I’m perplexed and blurry. As ever, I fumbled deeper and deeper into a sense of shame, embarrassment, humiliation. The more aggressive he was, the more I stuttered. The more fiercely he behaved, the more blank my mind became.
Finally, it was over. Not the workshop, unfortunately—just the first few minutes of it.
I felt sick. Tears ran hot behind my eyes. My breathing hurt. My cheeks warmed with embarrassment. I struggled to make eye contact with anyone at all.
I plotted an escape. Unfortunately, I’m the person who generally chooses the seat front and centre, closest to the action and furthest from the door. Dammit. My choices were: stay and feel humiliated; leave and feel even more humiliated (but at least experience some relief).
Until I realized those were, in fact, not my only options.
- Why would I walk out of an $80 workshop because some jerk decided to live out his nature?
- Why would I forgo learning and connecting because one person was feeling particularly arrogant on this particular day?
- Why would I short myself the tips of an experienced writer because some yahoo screwed up in basic geniality?
- Why would I buy in to this man’s craving for me to feel shame?
In doing so, I impoverish myself.
When I quit school because my teacher is complacent, I’m the one that loses out.
When I tell myself I don’t deserve a grant, I’m the one denying myself the funds.
When I respond to an attempt to shame me by withdrawing, I take from me.
When I blame myself for blustering, when another opened with aggression, I steal my own self-esteem.
In these, no one else is impoverishing me. I am doing it to myself.
Months later, a stranger at a public talk ordered me to exit because I was wearing an essential oil. I fully understand scent-allergies, thus generally avoid wearing any outside of my home. Under some extra stress myself, I had put it on to help me get through the day, unfortunately not thinking about its potential impact in the room. Because I understand the issue, and believed this person, I apologized, agreed to stand at the far side of the very large room, and washed it off as well as I could. I think that’s fair. But no, I will not be ousted from a public space because I have a scent on. I exist too! I have needs and experiences too!
Finally. Finally I know I am equal in importance to the next person. Not to say I will douse myself in perfume and rub up against a person whose very breathing is affected. But, in my movements I will say:
I exist too. We can find a way to share this space, this resource, but I exist too.
Somehow, I had not come to know that earlier in life.
I genuinely thought everybody else was more important than me. That I was fine going without, and they should have anything available. And I made it easy for others to run with their idea that they were more important, more essential, more worthy, more right, more capable, more aware. They expressed it, and I lived out agreement with it.
I see it a lot. I see it in friends who declare themselves ineligible for disability funding, in clients who accept a denial of services without so much as peep, in neighbours who sadly avoid the fun class at the seniors centre because they haven’t yet turned 55, in folks of one faith or no faith who assume they are not welcome across the threshold of a given space.
In so many areas, I have impoverished myself. Creating a barrier where no one else had. Dipping my head and cowering home. Avoiding opportunities in a belief that those were meant only for someone else. Accepting the decrees of others. Agreeing to feel the shame an old man with low self-esteem wants me to feel.
I’m learning to not do this, and to instead remember that I’m as important and deserving and enjoyed as anybody else. Interestingly, every time I decline to impoverish myself, I find the world deciding to infuse me too.