Recently–as in, weeks or months ago–I ran into an old acquaintance. We’d known each other for years, from various churches and schools, but we’d never truly been friends. She was part of the popular kids during our teen years. I wasn’t. She wasn’t a “mean girl” or a bully. Only popular. And I wasn’t.
(And I was a bit of a snob regarding people I perceived as popular; I didn’t like them, had no use for them, suspicious that they must have compromised their standards to attain their popular status. How else could people climb the social ladder of success?)
So we floated around in different social circles, never connecting except when it was forced on us.
Over the years, I’d perceived that even though we were adults, she was still treating me that same way. We talked only when necessary (almost never) and I perceived a certain superficiality on her part. I loathe fake friendliness. Pretense. Artificiality. Bleh. So it was better that we didn’t talk, I told myself, because I would rather be around genuine people. Not fakes. (Notice the pride in my attitude!)
Circumstances changed. Some changes were small, others life-altering. When we ran into each other, I was startled that she was friendly to me. And I mean genuinely friendly. I assumed the changes in our lives might have contributed to this.
I was right about that, but only that.
I learned that she’d been living with pain for years. It had taken all her energy to keep this hidden from others. Now that her life had changed, so had the pain. She could drop the pretense that life was fine and the oh-we’re-doing-wonderful-how-about-you? the churchy, socially-acceptable answer to the horrible phrase, “Hi, how are you?” (There ought to be a law against this question being used as a social greeting.) She was free to be honest.
I was flabbergasted. Not at the secret per se–I’d had a weird feeling about one aspect of her life for years–but at how badly I’d mangled my interpretation of our relationship. That artificiality? That perception that she was treating me like we were back in high school?
I was wrong. It wasn’t about me at all.
It was about a woman trying to protect herself from pain.
Never mind what this particular pain was. You can fill in the blank with whatever you think it might be; it could be physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, any sort of thing at all. And this particular situation could be applied to multiple people whom I’ve known for years; after living in the same area for twenty-eight years, I know a lot of people. So there’s no use trying to guess who it is (if you know me in real life) or what it is (if you know me online). That’s irrelevant.
What is relevant is how I made a situation revolve around me and my interpretations of events and people, and how I was wrong.
It reminded me of the novel Rebecca. After the big revelation that the narrator’s husband not only killed his first wife but never loved her at all, the young narrator begins to look at all the things she’s misinterpreted since she got married. Her sister-in-law’s attitude. The estate manager’s manner toward her. Her husband, and a multitude of things surrounding his late wife Rebecca, who’d pretended to be perfection and was foul and rotten beneath the surface.
She hasn’t known any of this. Instead, she’d built up a picture in her mind of the wonderful life her husband Max and Rebecca had: love and devotion and passion. It had been none of those things. She hadn’t known because she felt inferior to the first wife and was too shy to ask questions.
It seemed incredible to me now that I had never understood. I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth. —Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier, chapter 20
Like the unnamed narrator of Rebecca, I had done exactly that. I’d let my self-perceived inferiority build up a wall between myself and the world. It was built, stone by stone, from insecurity, from past embarrassments, from present slights, from future fears. High school experiences had been perceived through the grey cloud of depression then. Now, those experiences were even more distorted by the extremes of bipolar disorder, the fickleness of memory, and arrogance. (What can be more arrogant than self-abasement? It emphasizes self, exalting it by giving it undue credit.)
The situation wasn’t about me. But it did reveal how distorted and self-centered my thoughts were. Now I look around and I wonder how many other times I’ve misjudged people’s attitudes and actions. All those things that I’ve seen as hostility or superficiality or some other negative attitude toward me could really be exactly what it seems: hostility or superficiality of spirit. It also could be hiding personal pain. I might never know.
But I can stop focusing on me and pray for a discerning mind and an open heart–and be willing to see that truth revealed, no matter how ugly it is.