When Disappointing People Reappear

Someone very close to me thinks my acting skills need honing. “Just smile. Be friendly. Seem relaxed. It will keep peace and make things so much easier for everyone.” It sure would be easier, but acting is often beyond me. I see certain people and I jump back. Or shake. Or run away (yes, literally: smoothness and maturity have never been my strengths).

I’ve been considering why this happens—why I can’t just slide past encounters and experiences into a remote closet and approach people anew. This may sound bizarre, but I think it’s because I believe energy transcends time. Something may have happened two months ago or even ten years ago, but the leftover energy from the experience fires up and sizzles whenever I face the person in question. The other person may not sense it, but my radar for it is fantabulous. As far as I’m concerned, it never goes into hiding or even fades.

Consider this tale (and for the purposes of this essay, it’s only a tale): I’m in my mid-twenties, at a wedding. I’m insecure about my appearance—I’ve always been clumsy; I don’t carry myself gracefully; I’ve battled acne; I often weigh more than I should; I’m so short I usually spend parades staring at people’s backs. More important than any of this, most people who know me surely intuit my basic discomfort with my body. It’s as obvious as a light shining right into their eyes.

Probably, in some objective sense, I’m perfectly fine-looking. At this wedding, several guys show an interest in me: want to talk, dance, and take me aside to tell me about their lives. This makes me uncomfortable since I have no interest in dating anyone or relating to anyone in a sexual way, but it also boosts my confidence in my body, which is splendid for my mood and overall outlook on life.

So, on the whole, I’m having an OK time, despite having to wear dress-up, feminine clothes that make me feel like I’ve stuffed myself into a costume, and my gloominess at the knowledge that the ritual we’re celebrating is engrained in the expectations of my family and the larger world. As time passes, I’ll become more and more of an outlier as I continue to resist it—which I will, because marriage does not appeal to me. But I can step back from these thoughts, enjoy the novelty of seeing people I rarely get to spend time with, and savor the idea that two truly nice people are moving into a phase that will surely bring them happiness: marriage seems to suit them much better than it would suit me.

Then something slams me into a terrible mood, and the effects will linger indefinitely. I’m standing with two fellow guests—young women—and they’re talking about marriage and weddings: an appropriate topic, no doubt. I say: “It’s a safe bet that I’ll never get married.”

A guest I’ll call X responds immediately: “Why? Lots of unattractive people get married.”

The other guest tries to rescue me, because I’m just standing in silent shock, like I always do when I’m attacked in person: “Some people just don’t want to get married.”

At that point, I say, quietly: “Right. I just don’t want to get married.” I truly don’t—and wouldn’t even if I saw myself as the most glorious physical specimen ever to grace our planet.

I’m upset, but hatred hasn’t set in yet. That will come later, after I mull over the implications, how it fits with X’s history of behavior towards me, and how I feel about future encounters with her, which will undoubtedly come. But I’m feeling very insecure, and I am not adept at hiding my reactions.

X senses this—she’s a very bright person with excellent powers of observation—and decides to take advantage and continue digging in. She looks at the other guest with us and says: “You know my friend Y, right? So unattractive, and she got married. And my friend Z. Even she got married.” I say nothing, of course, just stand there like an awkward little mouse.

Some might wonder if this is an isolated event, maybe triggered by alcohol or some such. But I know better. X has said similarly cruel things many times through the years, and she is very controlled, with no tendency towards drunkenness. This is kind of a capstone, because it’s so glaring and sustained, with continued remarks along the same lines, leaving no room whatsoever for doubt or ambiguity.

Finally I wander away from X and try to avoid her for the rest of the party—indeed, for the rest of my life. But it’s tricky. People I love are close to people who are very close to her. Avoiding her entirely would be to close myself off from many important gatherings. Sometimes, I see her, and, to use a word my mother loves, my behavior is tremendously unflattering. My whole body tenses. I back up if she approaches me. If she tries to sit across from me, I stand up and walk away, because I start to feel unbearable anxiety: my sides ache and I feel blood rushing through my head.

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Of course, I am entitled to my reactions. But a smoother person would put past encounters aside, gird herself against potential attacks with a game plan—perhaps to saunter away at an opportune time, perhaps to counter any nasty comments with some kind of clever comeback—and just pretend to feel the closeness other people wish I could feign. All I can do is whimper and run away, and considerable time has passed since that event.

Responses like this are very rare for me, but X is not the only one who inspires them. All who have starkly attacked me or my work and then find themselves in my physical space are likely to send me cringing away into a corner, with mystical eyes surrounding my body, trying to sense any encroachment of unfriendly forces so I can flee from them.

I want to be clear that I am not a super-sensitive person, on the whole, when it comes to social interaction. I’m not the sort who gets into fights with friends: I’m very willing to brush off little remarks and slights, and I accept apologies immediately. Sometimes my parents and I get into tiffs, and we usually forgive each other minutes after the event finishes. Worst case scenario, we’re friends again the next day. I get along easily with colleagues and students.

There’s just one thing I can’t control: my feelings towards people who clearly hurt me, and then, for whatever reason, remain in my life, or even jump back into it for a cameo appearance. Take the boys (now men) from my high school who used to call me “Platypus” (“Plat” for short). I saw one of them a few years ago—he waved and called my name, and I crossed the street and walked way out of my way to avoid any discussion. If I’d been cooler and calmer, I might have simply asked: “I’ve always wondered: why did you call me ‘Platypus’? Do I look like one? Act like one? I don’t have a big nose: what inspired this?” It would have been juicy, fascinating, and potentially hilarious to see his reaction. Platypus or not, I might have had an entertaining or even enriching encounter. I certainly would have learned more than I did racing across the street and driving myself into a frenzy. But I knew I’d start shaking, so, sadly, I gave up a rare opportunity for a fabulous experiment.

And then there’s the woman who gave my book a rotten (and poorly reasoned—and I swear I take criticism well when it’s warranted) review on Goodreads and then rushed up to me at a bookstore in Manhattan, wanting to say hello, because she recognized me from a party here in Boston. (For those who remember my article on networking, yes, this was Two-Star Tillie: I met her again in a different city, surely the result of some kind of weird karma or luck.) The odd thing here wasn’t the review itself: every writer gets bad reviews here and there. It was the shock of seeing her reach out in such a warm way, when she must know that I Google myself and find online reactions to my work. What could she possibly have wanted? For a brooding soul like me, it was chilling.

But why can’t I take each moment as it comes, embracing people in the now without drowning in the past? If only I could have calmly asked Two-Star Tillie: “What was up with that negative review? You seem like a nice person, but why do you think I’ll warmly receive you after you trashed my book?” For all I know, she’s a well-meaning sort who simply doesn’t realize that writers tend to feel a particular kind of nausea when they discover that another writer has publicly attacked their work. She may be a thick-skinned type who churns out negative reviews all the time, seeing them as casual self-expression. (Goodreads reviews are easily fired off by anyone who feels the urge.) Her response to my questions could have been gloriously intriguing, but I’d need about a thousand times more confidence to pull that off. So I ran to the bathroom as soon as she introduced herself, classy character that I am.

As I said earlier, energy transcends time, and I have finely tuned radar for the energy of past assaults. Lubavitcher Hasidim emphasize a belief that strikes me as transcendent: every action has deep mystical significance, sometimes grave, sometimes wondrous. Reach out to the lonely man on the subway, and that might bring the Messiah. Even if not, your behavior infuses the interconnected network of the universe, influencing far more than that one man’s mood (which in itself is a complex and deeply important mental world). Taunt someone—make her cry, scream, brood, or run away because of your meanness—and you’re introducing powerful negative forces into the delicate web that binds us all.

The past is not erased: every act that’s completed leaves its mark somehow. Of course, forgiveness and atonement are possible: both are key. Otherwise, what’s the point of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—and asking our fellow humans for pardon when a negative act involves them? But every action leaves its trace, and when we do things that deeply influence other souls, those souls remember, sometimes in ways that penetrate their whole bodies. Behavior is irrevocable even if it’s forgivable. Those we hurt are entitled to their reactions, even long after the moment of crisis.

Still, I may take this all too far. I’m not worried about the people whose past behavior makes me uncomfortable: I’m concerned for myself. Rather than obsessing and stewing when certain people appear in my life, how calming it would be to smile, say my requisite hellos, even hug if I’m forced into it, and serenely saunter off after polite conversation. If lengthy encounters come up, how riveting it might be to run with them and see how the people act—and if more attacks happen, just accept them as a thought-provoking variation of human behavior.

For that matter, I fancy myself a supremely open person. I relish hearing all opinions, all spiritual theories, all visions of the perfect life. Yet, when people behave towards me in ways that seem nasty, mean, or dangerous, my discomfort sometimes pushes me to cross them off my list of mental worlds I want to know. Can people grow and change? A truly open spirit would say that they can. An expansive soul would see the potential expansiveness in other souls: their ability to transcend their past drives and mistakes. I have every right to my reactions, but maybe, if I saw the world from a higher vantage point, I’d perceive those who have hurt me more as growing personalities than as permanent enemies to be avoided for the rest of forever.

The cool, suave, content, and controlled me would react with calm, even as I register the debris of past disappointments. Problem is… cool, suave, content, and controlled is the opposite of me. So maybe I shouldn’t shoot for the opposite of me: that’s a recipe for profound disappointment. Maybe I should try for a little more tranquility, a dash of unflappability: an ability to bring my adventuresome spirit into my encounters with those whose past behavior makes me cringe. The capacity to say: “Look who’s here: let’s just see what happens this time. I am ready for a journey.”

It may feel odd that Hevria’s least romantic writer is posting on Valentine’s Day, but I do have a message of love for all of you: Cherish yourself. If others treat you with contempt, try to react in a way that preserves your own happiness, pleasure, and confidence. You have little control over mean people, but the world inside your mind is your own great galaxy. Enjoy it. Bend it to your will, even when some try to drag you down. Now let’s see if I can follow my own wise advice.