When I was in middle school, I didn't have very many "cool" clothes. I have never been to interested in being cool for one reason or another. . .I'm more on the warm side. But my mom took me to Walmart and bought me a blouse that I thought was the epitome of 1993 cool. It was blue and black plaid, with a ruffly peasant collar and a little black bow right on the front. I think you were supposed to wear it off the shoulder but I just wore it up and when I put it on I felt so pretty.
I remember my parents dropping me off at the middle school dance, and I felt like I was really rocking the shirt. I was kind of overly skinny and newly, awkwardly tall because I had just gone through a growth spurt but I had curled my bangs up and I felt like with all that effort I was totally the kind of girl that a middle school boy might ask to dance.
I was standing by a column in the basement cafeteria as the early 90's jams played, awkward and exposed in the fluorescent lights. I was chatting with a few of my girlfriends, when around the corner of the column came a trio of middle school girls, the "cool" girls if you will, looking at me with that sort of smirky classic after-school-special face that girls make when they are up to something.
"I like your shirt, Jenny." said one, in a tone that made me think that she may or may not actually like my shirt, but I thought I would just play along.
"Oh, thanks." I said, smiling a little bit and ducking my head because I thought that maybe the conversation would just end if I looked away.
"Yeah, where did you get that shirt??" chimed another, as my face started to get a little red.
"Um, well, yeah, I don't really remember." Even though I DID remember, and do remember over 20 years later, I was not about to tell the cool girls that I got my shirt at Walmart.
"So, are you supposed to wear it like this??" one said, pulling one shoulder of my shirt down as all of the girls started laughing.
"Um, I don't know, really" I said, fiddling with the shoulder and looking away.
"Well, I really like it, Jenny. Really cool." the first one said, and they moved a few feet away from me. My face burned as I saw them looking over at me, pointing and giggling with another group of kids that they had joined up with. For the rest of the night I sort of awkwardly fiddled with my shirt. I talked with my friends and pretended like I didn't care, but I really, really did. I don't even think I hit the floor to dance when our favorites came on. I just waited self consciously for the night to be over, and watched the big clock on the wall tick the minutes by until my mom would come and pick me up. When I got home I took off my beloved blouse and shoved it on the floor the back corner of my closet, never to be worn again.
Now, it's been a long time since middle school, but even typing this still makes me cringe a little bit. It wasn't the first time that someone else's criticism made me wilt like Chrysanthemum, and it wasn't the last. There were kids at camp who made fun of my freckles and made me want to wear long sleeve shirts in July. The high school boys who laughed at me singing at church and made me want to just be invisible. The guy at the bar in college who teased me about my dancing. (To my credit, it was HARD to dance in those Steve Madden slide platform wedges, OK???) Yet experiences like that shaped me into who I am today, the kind of person who appreciates differences and has a really tender heart for others. And also, despite the previous criticism, wears sleeveless shirts, still sings at church and dances in her living room. I mean, if I wasn't me, who would I be? And if we weren't all different, what fun would life be?
Last week, I bought a jaunty hat. A floppy brown hat so glorious that when I saw it on Pinterest I just new it had to be mine. It would complete every outfit I had with a joyful fall-esque flourish. LOVE. Click. Ordered. Delivered by Mike the mailman. I wore it all over town. Of course, I got lots of compliments, because who doesn't love a fall hat!!!???? And I loooooove compliments!! I compliment strangers on their clothes all of the time, if you love something why keep it inside?? But then. . .I overheard someone making fun of me. Just that little side glance, that little after-school-special-middle-school-girl-esque smirk. The whispered words just barely overhead that let me know that there was some criticism of my clothes and my hat and my style. I almost heard Boyz II Men playing. . .it was 90's cafeteria dance in the florescent lights all over again.
The difference is, now that I am older I know that nothing anyone says about me can change God's truth about who I am.
I am not my works.
I am not my job.
I am not my children.
I am not my image.
I am not even my hat.
If I live in the light of my own truth and God's, I can live peacefully in the world. Some people will hate me for the same reason that other people love me. I often come back to the expression "you can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world and there will still be someone who doesn't like peaches!" Some people scoff at me for my tender heart, or make fun of me for my openness and enthusiasm and goofball sense of humor and love of big sunglasses and turbans. Other people might equally adore those things about me. Praise and blame are all the same, as neither reflect our deepest truth.
If people don't like something about us, it is more about their own preferences, or maybe even their own insecurities, than it is about something that is wrong with our deepest selves. If someone doesn't like me because I'm an asshole, I would totally get that. Nobody likes assholes. That's on me. But, if someone doesn't like me because I smile a lot and wear jaunty hats, well, that's on them. Agree to disagree (in my best Ron Burgundy voice).
I wrote this for anyone else who shares my sensitivity to criticism, and might have been tempted to shove parts of themselves in the back of the closet, never to get them out again, trying to somehow universally acceptable to all people. I am slowly learning that might just be impossible. As much as I would like to try to be beloved by everyone I meet, it JUST might not be a realistic goal. If everyone liked the same things, the world would be a pretty boring place, too! No human being can escape criticism, not even JESUS, y'all. The true freedom comes in how we accept that criticism, considering it in the context of the source, its nature, its intent and our own personal truth. Sometimes all criticism is telling us is that someone prefers something different, or even simply that a particular person just feels a need to be critical!
So this time my face didn't burn. I lifted up my chin and cocked my floppy brown hat just right. If the Boyz II Men was playing, I would have run out onto the dance floor.
Because now I am learning:
The essential parts about me are invisible and remain unchanged.