Personal Narrative

Getting Schooled in Tolerance

It’s remarkable how much difference a decade makes.

19-year-old me thought hippie music festivals “were a good time,” dropped more than an occasional F- bomb, and planned to move to France after graduation. 29-year-old me wears socks, schedules dentist appointments six months out, and loves spending Saturday nights with Garrison Keillor. I’m happy to report that I can now afford imported cheese and don’t consider Bud Light a “splurge” beverage (In fact, I don’t really consider Bud Light at all). I’ve grown up in a lot of the typical ways that people do in their 20s… it’s amazing what a steady job will do for your lifestyle and sleep schedule!

The most significant changes, though, have been to my internal monologue and outward personality; (at least I think) I’ve become less judgmental and more open-minded. I’m more aware of my surroundings, and able to see more than one side of things. It’s like all of my interpersonal friction in the last 10 years has had a polishing effect. I wouldn’t call myself sea glass or anything, but I’ve come a long way from the Wittenberg student who wrote strongly-worded letters to the school paper, criticizing her private, Lutheran University for renaming the Student Center coffee shop Post 95. 29-year-old me recognizes that this was a reverent nod to the school’s heritage and namesake, and not an affront to the less than 1% Jewish student minority.

When I was in college, I had such a binary view of the world—black and white, right and wrong. It was easy to be self-righteous and indignant. In defending my principles, I pissed off and alienated a lot of people, like when I deactivated from my sorority (they thought I should honor the 1-year commitment to living in the House; I disagreed). It wasn’t enough for me to just go my own way, and get the off-campus house that I wanted—oh no. I had to be all outraged about it, and leave such a bad taste in everyone’s mouth that I lost most of my friends. I just had to make this big scene about how the system was wrong, and I was right.

I know that it’s typical for young people to fight passionately for their principles, and take up causes and run with them. Just look at the Occupy Movement, or any of the student protests that are commonplace in Western Europe. People might think that protesting is for the young because the young have the time, energy, and freedom to stand up for their beliefs, but I think that’s only half the story.

I wonder if some people, like me, age out of it…not because our beliefs change, or we don’t have the energy… but because we fraternize too much with the “enemy.” In my experience, when you get out of the bubble and into the real world, you expand your circle, and you inevitably get to know a lot of people who are on the other side of the fence in terms of politics, in terms of religion, in terms of everything. You don’t get to choose your coworkers like you chose your high school and college friends – you’re forced into relationships with people you wouldn’t normally be attracted to, and you are exposed to their viewpoints. And then you realize that you kind of like and respect these people, or at least they’re not total idiots.

I’ve always been and always will be opinionated. I hope to God that never changes, because having a point of view means having an identity. If antagonized to defend my opinions, I certainly will, and verbosely to the point of exhaustion. But what I don’t feel compelled to do anymore is push those opinions on others, or try to pass them off as facts, especially when it comes to contentious social or political issues.

I love to compare notes with like-minded individuals, and I enjoy an intellectual debate with someone who has a different perspective (if I didn’t, my beau and I wouldn’t have made it to a third date). But in recent years, I’ve become really sensitive to how alienating unsolicited, uncompromising opinions can be. Ever had a friend’s Facebook rant pop up in your feed and realize that you’re one of the “ignorant idiots” their rant is aimed at? Then you know what I’m talking about.

Take Renee Zellweger, for example. Last month, I was talking to a friend about her adventures in plastic surgery, which at the time were drawing a lot of public criticism. I’ll put it out there that I’m a detractor; I’m not comfortable with the idea of cutting into the body God gave me in order to get incrementally closer to a generic standard of beauty.

The friend I was chatting with felt the same way, and once I realized we were on the same page, I didn’t feel the need to tiptoe around or politically navigate the conversation. We both agreed: I personally wouldn’t do that. There’s safety and freedom in discussing a controversial topic with a like-minded individual…you don’t have to worry about alienating or offending anyone.

I don’t think that 19-year-old me would have thought twice about that, though. She wouldn’t have carefully drawn out her friend’s opinion first, before launching into a diatribe about the evils and vanity of plastic surgery. She probably would have been on message boards and social media, broadcasting the wrongness of Renee’s vanity and the rightness of her opinion. She would have brought it up at a party with people she just met as a thoughtless non sequitur: Can you believe how pathetic and desperate Renee Zellweger is!?

29-year-old me knows a lot of really great people who have had plastic surgery in order to feel better about themselves. 29-year-old me also spent half a car payment on an ombré dye job last month, and has the self-awareness to recognize that this makes her kind of a hypocrite. So even though I’m sure that plastic surgery isn’t something I would do right now (never say never, right?), I won’t look down on or condescend anyone for making that choice. I also won’t espouse that opinion under the pretext of Rightness, for fear of offending someone who’s had a nose job or a facelift. Because they don’t deserve that.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve learned an important lesson about the validity of everyone’s opinions, or at least, I’ve learned to respect everyone’s right to theirs. As the Existentialists put it: we all create our own meaning and values (thank you college-self for actually doing your French Lit homework). When I vehemently disagree with someone, I try to remind myself that they believe they are just as right as I do, and no good is going to come out of insulting their intelligence or attacking their belief system.

Being almost-thirty really isn’t so bad. People always talk about aging in a wistful or negative context, but I wouldn’t trade the measures I’ve matured for the chance to party like a coed again. I’m still opinionated, I’m still fiery, and I still believe that we should stand up for our beliefs and protest against injustice. I’ve just learned that I want to be someone who argues, defends, and persuades with self-awareness, sensitivity, and humility. Some call it emotional intelligence, some call it business acumen, and I call it decency.


Origin Story

Last season on American Idol, they did this bit where all of the contestants had to list 10 things that America didn’t (yet) know about them. The entertainment value was in the ambush; the camera crew would sneak-attack at random, giving the contestant just 20 seconds to adlib their 10 facts. I can’t remember any of the facts specifically, but what I do remember is how desperately they racked their brains, struggling to come up 10 things that were worthy of sharing with America. Most ran out of time before they got to 10.

I’ve witnessed this phenomenon in the real world, too. At meetings, a new team member will introduce themselves. Cajoled to share a “fun fact” with the group, there’s a 50% chance this person will stammer, sweat, stall (There’s just not anything that interesting about me!) and finally manage, “I grew up in Cincinnati and I’m a Reds fan,” or something equally generic.

This apparent struggle to share information about ourselves is ironic, considering the volume and ease with which people share about themselves on social media. Every thought, every action becomes a potential point of interest worthy of sharing with the worldwide web, and yet – when faced with identity questions in 3D, we balk—we go all shy, or our minds turn to static.

The Internet gives us time and space to carefully craft our image and cherry-pick the details we share about ourselves; it’s an exercise in branding. Time and physical distance afford a polished image.

If challenged to share “interesting facts” about myself, I’m not at risk of letting slip an embarrassing habit or shameful story; I can manufacture a fabulous image: I went to college after my junior year (I’m smart!), or I’m in a fantasy baseball keeper league (I’m a cool girl who can hang with the guys!).

I think it’s an interesting question: what do we deem share-worthy, and why? US Weekly has a reccurring beat—25 Things You Didn’t Know About Me— where a celebrity shares 25 facts about themselves (or more accurately: the celebrity collaborates with their publicist and emails a finely-tuned file to the magazine). Of all the things they could choose to share about themselves, what makes it on the page says volumes not about who they are – but who they want you to think they are. From Jason Aldean’s survey:

  • “I’m a huge University of Georgia football fan and dreamed of going to games as a kid – but we couldn’t afford it” = I come from humble roots and I’m just like you, Middle America, so buy my albums!
  • “I sold out UGA’s Sanford Stadium last year” = Look at me now! I’m a legit Country Music A-Player, so get on the bandwagon and buy my albums!
  • “I love to shop for vintage T-shirts on eBay” = I’m still down-to-earth and I can relate to you, Hipster Millennial, so buy my albums!

If we strip away the public component of the sharing exercise, and the propensity to edit, what are the things we do/think that say the most about who we really are, not just who we aspire to be, or want others to think we are?

The closest we get to unfiltered honesty is when we get put on the spot à la American Idol, minus the opportunity for retakes and editing (l don’t have any illusions about the “reality” of Reality TV). But even then, a lot of us will shut down instead of share: Nothing’s new with me / I’m not all that interesting.

Where is this stream of consciousness leading? No big thesis; more of a food-for-thought share, and a window into the conversation I’ve been having with myself as I’ve considered starting a blog for many years. The reluctance to share about myself, and the self-doubt that my thoughts, ideas, and observations really aren’t that interesting or original, have held me back for a long time.

It boils down to two fears: 1) confirming that nobody cares, and 2) sharing more of myself with people I know (Will they judge me? Still like me? Still respect me?). The second fear is the bigger obstacle, because the stuff I feel motivated to write about can be personal, and revealing (scary!).

The one “interesting fact” that best conveys my personality/lifestyle is that I’m Type-A to the extreme. SO extreme in fact, that my sister has labeled it an A+ (which is fine by me, because it sounds like WINNING!). But being a Type-A+ perfectionist means I am definitely one of those people who has a carefully crafted image, who weighs her words, measures each movement, and projects only the parts that I want you to see. You could say that this blog is part of my treatment plan as a recovering perfectionist.

I plan to post at least once a month, hopefully more, once I get the hang of it. This is not an exercise in image branding or polishing. I don’t want to write what I think people want to read, or what I think will make me look good, smart, cool, popular, etc. I want to do this as honestly as possible. There’s no central theme – just whatever I feel like writing about. It will be intraspective and self-important. I will believe I’m right about everything. But even if my mom is the only person who reads it, this blog is the realization of a long-time goal, and I’m already feeling pretty damn A+ about taking the first step.