Carrying kindness until it is enough
I have learned, over the last decade or three, when I am offered a compliment, to nod and smile and say, “Thank you.” That’s out loud. Internally, there’s a whole dialogue of negation that eventually devolves into a spirited and oh-so-mature rendition of “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” If you have the mental image of a small girl-child in pig tails and black patent leather Mary Janes, fingers firmly placed in her ears and eyes squeezed shut, we’re on the same page.
I am old plus two, dammit. I gave up pigtails and Mary Janes a long time ago.
I am a successful businessperson. I love telling anyone who asks what I do for a living (and a handful or two of people who don’t) that I am a professional Jewish mother who reads spreadsheets. Really. I actually get paid to tell people what to do. I am a trusted advisor, for God’s sake, a consultant on some pretty complex stuff that, while it may not have the impact level of, say, stomping out world hunger or curing the common cold, still helps keep the world moving and my clients on track.
I have a son whom I have managed to not break, not even once, since the day he was born, fourteen-and-a-half years ago. While there are times I fear he has been secretly raised in a barn by wolves, while I must, at times, keep myself from lapsing into a rousing chorus of “One boy! Boy for sale! He’s going cheap…” from Oliver!, while there are days when I bemoan the fact that there is not enough duct tape in all the world to contain him, I am willing to concede he’s a pretty awesome kid who may actually have a few saving graces.
I can raise a child, consult with the C Suite, sing and write and teach and make am amazing pot of homemade vegetable beef soup that would bring tears to gourmand and peasant both. I can carry on lengthy conversations with madmen and God (and do so, regularly), and dance in the palm of God’s hand (not quite so regularly, but that’s another story for a completely different day). I bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan, too, but I hate the thought of cleaning up all that spatter and grease, so a microwave will have to do. I am, in short, an accomplished, functioning, savvy, multi-tasking, multi-faceted adult woman of the 21st century who can do more things by Tuesday than most people get done by late Wednesday afternoons (I’m just not that energetic in the morning).
What I cannot do, at all, is take a compliment.
Dammit. What the hell is wrong with me? I squirm – literally, my face goes pink and hot and my skin kind of crawls for a second or two. I, the lover of words, the woman whose motto is “Why use ten words when a hundred will do?” and who can’t manage to say hello in less than 500 at best – I lose them all: I am speechless and get tongue-tied, both at the same time. I am a deer in the headlights and a butterfly pinned to black velvet. Pick your own metaphor for that vaguely prickly, mounting feeling of trapped stuckedness. Go ahead; I’ll wait. I’m sure I’ve not yet plumbed the depths of that particular literary device. There are bound to be a few I’ve yet to overuse. Let me know when you’re ready and we’ll move on.
Denial. Deflection. Dismissal: I am stopped cold by kindness. Every time.
I learned it from my mother. We would have some huge, extended family dinner for some holiday celebration. As she was carrying in platters overflowing with bountiful goodness, she would begin apologizing: “The seasoning isn’t quite right. I’m sorry. The soup is a little salty. I’m sorry. The potatoes aren’t really very good. I’m sorry” This, before anyone had lifted a fork to their mouths. When the compliments came – and she’s an excellent cook, so there was an excellent chance they would come (and besides, we live in a polite society; complimenting one’s hostess is part and parcel of the gathering) – when they came, my mother would slough them off, becoming more and more uncomfortable with every word, until eventually, she walked back into the kitchen to perform some critical task of culinary magic. Basically, she went to hide, until she was sure the uproar of those horrible compliments had died down.
Every holiday. Every dinner. Every time.
There’s a part of me, some tiny, daring and dangerous voice, that would really like to accept a compliment or two. Every now and then. I mean, a couple would be okay, right? I can be humble, even if I accepted someone’s compliment graciously, maybe even gracefully, couldn’t I? And that notion of tempting fate, or the evil eye, or the gods — that’s pure nonsense, isn’t it?
There is some part of me, some dangerous voice, that is not daring. Not at all. It is sibilant and officious, and keeps up a steady, whispery conversation (a conversation that feels exactly like walking through an unseen spider web feels in the dark and dank and narrow passageway, that makes you jump and sputter and feel like bolting), this voice tells me, again and again, ever and always, that I am unworthy of compliments and undeserving of kindness. I don’t know that it’s the same voice that my mother heard, or her mother before her, a long mine of mothers who learned to deflect and dismiss and deny, and who taught that lesson in every generation. My guess is yes: this is our ancestral voice, the one my family has carried from stetl to stetl and across oceans and time.
I am tired of that voice.
Now, lest you think this is some cheesy little ploy designed to garner complimentary posts and comments (deflect, dismiss, deny) – it is not. I can think of nothing that would make me feel more uncomfortable than to find myself faced with a barrage (if by “barrage” I mean more than none) of laudatory comments. I know, I know: I post my writing, I announce some cool things that have happened of late.
Here’s the thing: I don’t know what to do with your compliments or kindness. I don’t know how to carry that. Lies and shame seem so much easier. But they’re not. They are familiar companions, and so feel safe. I cling to them, but what they are, are chains: rusted and biting, they cut into my skin and leave marks. They draw blood. They keep me small and weak and less-than.
Weird, to post and then shrug it off, an odd push-me-pull-you tug of war, a disconnect of small and dangerously whispered proportions. But there’s that voice, the other one, the slightly daring and kind of dangerous (in a thrilling and adventurous kind of way) that just won’t shut up. It just keeps up this excited, manicky stream of consciousness: a “what if” conversation carried to a staggering limit.
What if –
What if I just said “thank you” and then smiled? What if I believed it? What if I believed you? What if I took some joy in doing something well? What if I took pride in accomplishing something grand? What if pride were not a dirty word? What if I really were deserving of praise and kindness? What if I treated myself the exact same way I demand people treat one another? What if I defended myself (from myself) the way I defend those who are being treated with cruelty and met with shame?
What if I told that soft and whispery other voice to just shut the fuck up for a while?
What if, indeed?