Thursday, November 04, 2010

Everything's Better with Rocks

I had a surreal day. I woke up with back pain and then, browsing around my sitemeter, followed a referral link to a post about how one of my posts -- a happy post, mind you, and not even the one about our cruise -- had more or less sent the reader into a tailspin and ruined the rest of her day. This made me feel pretty cruddy, as you can probably imagine, even though it was competely unintentional on my part. Comments from two of her readers, trying to cheer her up by insulting me, didn't help.

Several times in my life, I've discovered that people I'd never even met were saying nasty things about me behind my back. (On one occasion, people were gossiping about me in Paris, where I've never even been, and the things they were saying about me were based on third-hand reports that weren't even true.) Because I'm not particularly famous, these experiences have given me much greater empathy for people like politicians and actors, who have to put up with this kind of anonymous hatred all the time. Because I don't, and therefore never expect it, it always throws me for a loop. Learning that people you don't even know think badly of you, and maybe even wish you ill, makes the whole world seem scarier, you know?

Note: My entire life, people have been telling me that I shouldn't care so much about things, and especially not about what other people think of me. A former therapist routinely gave me reproving looks and repeated the mantra, "What other people think of me is none of my business." If that works for her or her other clients, great. It doesn't work for me. Furthermore, I don't think it's true. We're social animals. We're designed to care what other people think of us. Science (TM) has discovered that the brain responds to social pain the same way it does to physical pain. Furthermore, repeated rejection can literally make people sick.

On a more immediate and practical level, being scolded for caring too much has never, not once in my life, succeeded in making me care less. It's just made me more unhappy, since being criticized for feeling too much feels, let's face it, like another form of rejection.

That's all an extended footnote to this morning's debacle. I found these particular slights especially baffling because I couldn't figure out how my happy post had triggered them. I'd expected the cruise post to draw more PoCo/Marxist ire than it did, but this one seemed innocent. On reflection, I realized that my happiness made the original reader feel worse in comparison, but how my being happy led the two commenters to conclude that I suffer from personality deficits was much more of a mystery. (Mind you, of course I suffer from some personality deficits, as all of us do; my friends love me anyway.) Had I said something horrible without realizing it?

Because I really don't wake up each morning determined to offend people, and because I couldn't figure out what was going on, I fretted about the situation for most of the morning, developing a migraine while running errands. Through all this, I was obsessively nice to people I encountered, handing out any compliment I could think of, on the theory that if you want to reduce the amount of pain in the world, saying nice things to people works better than saying nasty ones. I don't think my motives for doing this were especially noble, but I also don't think I hurt anyone in the process.

Well, the day got a little better. At my (joy oh joy) annual pelvic exam, my gynecologist was exquisitely kind about my grief issues and shared her own experience of losing her mother. Several friends I'd e-mailed about the blog mess wrote back and said they didn't think I'd done anything terrible. I managed to have some direct conversation both with the blogger and with one of the commenters, which helped clarify some of the issues. The charge of personality deficits came from a perceived breach of privacy, and perceived name-dropping, when I mentioned another writer's full name on the blog. Since promoting a very public figure's work doesn't breach her privacy, especially when her website includes her full name (yea, verily, even in the URL), and since I have an honest-to-goodness personal history with this individual, I was able to dismiss the charges in my own head, if not in my accuser's.

So I was already feeling better when the mail came.

The last time Gary and I were in San Francisco, we went to the beach with our friend Ellen, her two kids, her sister and her niece. Her niece is seven or eight, I think, a very sweet little girl. Her mom told her I like rocks, so she found a small, smooth pebble and gave it to me. I still carry it in my purse.

Today's mail brought a mysterious package, a flat padded envelope, oddly heavy, weighted with small objects that slid when I moved the envelope. When I opened it, I found a note from Ellen's sister. She and her daughter had gone to the beach and collected five rocks they thought I'd like. She apologized for the fact that it had taken a while for her to mail them.

I e-mailed a thank-you note via Ellen (I don't have her sister's address), thanking them effusively, and assuring them that the rocks had arrived at just the right moment. I can't tell you how much better they made me feel.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, and words may hurt me just as badly by igniting the pain pathways in my brain, but if you give me a pretty pebble, I'll feel loved forever. And five pebbles? Such riches!

So the world feels friendly again. I still have a smidgen of a headache, but I'll swim after dinner, which should help.

Postscript: I just heard from Commenter #2, who'd read the blog entry and the first comment, assumed that both the blogger and Commenter #1 were referring to unhelpful comments left on that blog by someone else (I'd never even visited the blog before this morning), and vented her own frustration.

Moral of this story: If you feel like assassinating someone's character, make sure you at least have the right target!


  1. Nowadays folks are so rushed, they don't take time to read carefully and they jump to conclusions with only half the information A symptom of our times I guess. It certainly causes a lot of hard feelings and confusion. Thankfully there were some golden moments in your day and, in the end, the current confusion was cleared up. Do you ever feel like you go through life putting out one brush fire after another?

  2. Anonymous8:32 PM

    Apologies for thinking you were the phantom 'helpful' commenter. I shall look before I leap!

  3. oh, susan.

    i only read a paragraph or so into this before i ran off to check: had it been MY tailspin? MY readers (either of them)?

    because i know i can be sent into a funk that lasts for days just because of the way one wall meets the ceiling and sometimes people say stupid things.

    you know about intent, though. and you know about how you carry yourself in the world.

    if you say something (and it's your right to have your own thoughts and to express them) and some person gets bent out of shape over it, isn't that ultimately their problem?

    well, yes and no.

    because by the same token if i am already in a bad tailspin and something you said here (equally unrelated)saves me from it, is that to your credit, or mine?

    some of each?

    would now be a good time to tell you that you once saved my life? that i had never yet spoken to you and still haven't met you but that something you wrote resulted in me still breathing today?

    it is a fearsome responsibility to think that we have effects on how other people feel, whether by intent or by accident.

    we are alike, i think, in that we try to do our best by people. sometimes we get it wrong, or through circumstances unrelated to us they come out feeling worse. sometimes through no credit of our own they come out feeling much better.

    the trick is to allow yourself to feel responsible but not to take on blame or kick yourself or to let it turn to hurt in your own soul.

    it's a balancing act.

    i think i've said it before, but it bears repeating: give yourself a break. if you put on your chaplain hat, what would you tell yourself?

    be gentle.

  4. Hey, thanks, everybody! And flask, I'm happier than I can tell you that anything I've said has made a difference in your life.

    Yes, this certainly is a balancing act. And ultimately, it's a reminder that we're all interconnected, and that what we do matters, since our words and actions can have such unforeseen consequences in either direction. Ultimately, I think that's good news -- Good News, in fact -- but you're right that it's also a huge responsibility. If we think about it too much, we'd be so paralyzed we'd never get out of bed.

    This is where faith helps me. My actions matter, yes, but I'm not the one in charge, and the One who is specializes in transforming pain into blessing (although sometimes she's deucedly slow and indirect about it, at least to human eyes). So I have to be mindful and careful, but when I slip up, I can still trust that somehow some positive outcome will come out of the mess.

    All of which is a lot easier to remember when one isn't in a tailspin.

  5. Anonymous8:05 AM

    So glad this story has had a happy ending for you, Susan.



  6. Hi Susan! Yesterday I followed the other blogger's link to your blog, and for what it's worth I was also baffled by the comments that accused you of having no 'class'. I had assumed there might be some shared history between you, something a casual reader wouldn't be aware of, but I guess it's all just a misunderstanding.

    It's a shame it caused you any worry, and I'm glad your day improved so much.

    I was so charmed by your friend's niece's gift, and immediately thought of the story of David taking on Goliath ("And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd's bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine").

  7. Anonymous7:54 AM

    May I humbly suggest another moral for the story? Sometimes direct communication can not only clear up confusions but also resolve differences.

    As this is a lesson I am trying to learn myself right now, I hope you will forgive me for highlighting its presence here.

    Thank you, as always, for sharing your stories.


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