My mom moved into her retirement community three years ago this July. On the way back from Mother’s Day brunch, as she rode her scooter in the long hallway and I walked along side, I asked, “How do you feel about living here, Mom?”
She didn’t look up as she spoke. She has always driven carefully, looking straight ahead, hands tight on the wheel. “Well, there are things I like and things I don’t like.” I wanted to know both and thought it would be better to ask first about what she didn’t like so we could end on the happy note of what she did like.
“What don’t you like?”
“When people ask me where I went to college, I say, ‘I didn’t.’”
She spat the words harshly. It would be easy to interpret the steel in her voice as an aggressive spear rather than a defensive shield against the sucking tentacles of inferiority. It reminded me of a company where I used to work, where we taught leaders what to say about themselves. They were to lead with, “I run a two-point-four million dollar business with forty-five employees” rather than, “I’m a McDonald’s restaurant manager.”
I looked down at my mother and wished I could see her face.
“They’re not trying to make you feel bad, Mom. They’re just trying to find something to talk about.”
“Some of them are. Some of them are trying to make me feel bad.”
“Okay, maybe some of them are. But not all of them.” We were still whirring down the hallway and I kept talking.
“You could tell them that you grew up poor on a farm and college wasn’t an option. You could tell them you became a real estate agent, tell them how much you love to read.”
We had gotten to her door. She stopped her scooter and I could at last see her face. She looked up at me, sad with an old hurt. She didn’t say anything.
“Dad tried to make you feel bad about yourself for not going to college but he was wrong. You’re not less than them.”
My voice broke as I said it. I was surprised at my own tears and turned to unlock her door. When I turned back she was still sitting on her scooter, eyes wet but cheeks dry. Still she said nothing.
I said it again.
“You’re not less than them.”
I went into her apartment while she parked her scooter. I don’t remember what we talked about when she came inside. We chose safer territory.
I do it, too. Think less of myself. Think I am less than.
I am taking an online course where we are seeing what a common practice this is, this self-heaping of unworthiness. The coaches in the course are encouraging us to Act As If. Take small steps, whatever then next smallest viable step is, and Act As If.
It’s a much better way to go.
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Chewing the Cud of Good
Today I am thinking about the joy of doing what you love. I am thinking about the talk we heard on Tuesday, from the daughter of my mother’s friend, Dr. Diane Cowan, who lives alone on an island and studies lobsters. She made us happy with how much she loves lobsters and how much she loves her work, how much she is learning and changing her research and her theories based on what she is learning. When she studied the lobsters in the lab, the crustaceans practiced serial monogamy. But she decided the lab might not be exactly like real life and moved her research into the field. In the ocean, the lobsters practice resource-protective polygamy. She is fascinated by the lobsters and her fascination fascinated us. If you’d like to hear Diane, here’s her TEDx talk.