I remember sitting at a local coffee shop and noticing a woman who had a long, lost look on her face. She appeared to be about middle age and I asked her if something was wrong. “No.” she replied. “I was just thinking about how people assume much without checking the facts,” I asked her how she would define herself and the roles she played in life. I’ve never forgotten her response. “Who am I? I am a woman of resilience, shame, suffering, and joy. I am defined by my character and the way I look. I am a mother, a sister, a follower of God, I am a child, and a warrior. I am lost and found. I am poor but wealthy. I’m a myriad of complexities and I make no apologies. I’m graded by my appearance but I feel ragged. I’m a hunter looking for prey and protecting my tribe all at the same time. I’m guarded but fierce. I’m sane but insane. I’m a woman of an eclectic upbringing and have traveled throughout the world but my heart remained here. Who am I? I’m everyone and no one all at the same time. I bring power and take it away just as quickly. If I care for you, I’ll protect you with every fiber but if I loathe you, you are on your own.”
While she was telling me this, she took a sip of her coffee in between thoughts and said to me, “We all are perceived to be things that may or may not be true. Everything in life is based on perception. When people watch you, each person will see something different. It doesn’t matter what reality maybe, but we all form opinions in our minds. For every fact in this world, there is someone who may find something to rebuke that fact. It doesn’t matter if the facts are there or not. There will always be those who find ways to dispute things. Many people love to hear themselves argue just for the art of arguing itself. That doesn’t mean they are right or wrong. It means they are not willing to accept things as they are. “
I sat there not sure of what to make of this conversation. It was the kind of conversation that became deep very quickly and I felt myself sinking in a conversation of quicksand. I was mesmerized by her frank ability to tell it like it was and unsure if I was dealing with a mentally disturbed individual. I was a complete stranger and this conversation flowed as if we were two lost friends who couldn’t wait to catch up. The irony of the situation was that I understood all of what she described. I think all of us have those moments in life where we don’t know how to define who we are. It’s impossible to label us because we are consistently evolving in life. One minute we are one thing and the next minute we become something else.
If you don’t believe me, think about it this way. We all have buttons that get pushed. We can be happy go lucky one minute and if someone incites our tempers, we can become agitated quickly. We can go from being tired to energized and vice versa. We can be listening and then tune others out. There are a lot of factors that can determine what and who we are at a given time. I think we all forget that we wear many different hats. We’re expected to be all things to everyone and often we forget to be who we are at that moment. None of us has to be perfect. We do have to be willing, to be honest with ourselves about who we are and what we want. You can be good at something and be miserable. What makes you who you are?
As we talked, I found out that she was a breast cancer survivor. Cancer had come back and she was reflecting on how she felt throughout her fight and previously in her lifetime. She mentioned that she wanted her kids to flourish and fail. She wanted them to learn humility, strength, and grace. She stated that we are all on this earth for a small window of time and our souls are attracted to the energy of positivity versus negativity. She indicated the weakness she endured due to the chemo. The stark realization that she had lost her hair due to treatments and how several women she knew had already either beaten the disease or succumbed to it. She then took a sip out of her beverage and a bite of her muffin and stared at the parking lot.
Her next statement was an observation. There was a man with his family going into a Japanese restaurant in the same shopping center. He was a professional man according to his attire and he walked with an air of confidence and superiority. As he walked into the restaurant, the woman paused and said, “Do you see that man over there?” I responded with “Yes.” She stated, “If you go off of perception alone, that man doesn’t recognize his blessings. He’s so busy with appearances, he’s not paying attention to his daughter lagging behind. You can tell something is off with her. Her body language is screaming that she’s sad. Her brother is demanding attention and the man is leaving his wife to contend with the children. Look at his posture and the way he carries himself. This is a man who demands control. He’s not one that likes to be controlled. He has no concept of the impressions that he’s leaving upon his children. Status is everything to him.” I asked her if she wasn’t judging him and she responded that “Of course I am. We are all judged. It’s not right nor is it fair but it’s a human condition. We are conditioned to judge each other even though we advocate against it. “
I sat there digesting her logic. For years, I’ve tried not to judge others and have failed at it during times that I was tested. In many ways, she was calling out the hypocrisy of human behavior. So I asked her, if she “could change the world, what would she do to change it?” Her response gave me pause. Here are the top five answers she provided.
- Be aware of our own fears and insecurities. She said part of why we judge others is because we are trying to cover up our fears and insecurities. We want to make ourselves look good so it’s easier to put someone else down or mark their flaws.
- Consider why we use specific labels that limit others. It’s easier to put labels on people so that we can know what groups they belong in. But doesn’t that fall on perception? We may think we know what category people fall under, but we are judging based on emotion and not facts.
- Ask more questions. The best way to get to understand others is to ask a lot of questions about them. What are the areas that are important to them? What are their hobbies? What causes mean a lot to them and why? How do they like to get involved?
- Describe behavior with greater clarity instead of labeling people. Just like in research content is critical. When the behavior is described, it’s a necessary mechanism to help others understand a person’s mindset.
- If we don’t like the behavior we see, state what change we want to see. If you don’t like seeing someone throw temper tantrums, what can be done to help prevent it? Our lives are defined by what influences us along the way. We can create changes if we do things to prevent negative outbursts. There is a power that exists with knowledge. Using that power is critical for change.
I got ready to throw my drink away and leave but before I left, she looked over and asked me why I wasn’t sitting around a group of friends. She said, “You strike me as the type that enjoys people and I don’t get the feeling you are by yourself a lot.” I replied, “That’s very true.” I thought about her question for a second and said, “I grew up as an only child. I didn’t have siblings to fight with, nor did I have them to confide in. My friends became an adoptive family. It was easier to be with them than it was to be alone because I spent much of my childhood alone. I’m not afraid to be alone, I just don’t like it.” Her answer surprised me. She replied, “Treasure your time alone. That is one of the greatest opportunities for creativity. When you are around others, let them be your inspirations. Allow them to be your sounding boards when you need it but use the alone time to your advantage. You can hear a lot in the stillness of the world if you open yourself to that avenue. Be aware of your surroundings and you’ll be amazed at what you learn about yourself.” She also told me to “learn to be open but close when I need to. Remember those true friendships are not about who’s right or wrong, it’s about respect and if you aren’t getting respect in a relationship, then it’s not a relationship that deserves your respect.”
I thanked her and got up to leave. I introduced myself and she told me her name was Angel. I’ve never seen her before or since but the impression she made on me was lasting. One of the women that work for that location told me that she hadn’t seen her since that day. I don’t know if she lost her battle to cancer or not but I know that her words of wisdom still guide me. She reminded me to let the voice within me, help me move forward. Labeling others is not always the way to go.
I’m not saying to never size up who your competition may be. Just don’t think you know their story. We all have one. We have incidents in our lives the mold us to be better or worse than what people expect. If we all learn to talk less about others and listen more to what is being said around us, we will all gain a new perspective on those who are living difficult lives. The next time you are in an area where you hear conversations being held in your earshot, ask yourself a couple of questions. The first is what is your impression of that person? Are you basing that impression off what you see and hear or is it something in the tone of their voice? The second question is “Why does that conversation affect you where you are striving to hear more?” It may take you aback at how you are listening to others. It’s not nice to eavesdrop but sometimes it can’t be helped. Remember, we all are dealing with issues in our lives that aren’t always clear cut. How we reach out to others can impact their future along with ours.