I don’t remember being overtly bullied when I was a child, but I was definitely the odd man out. I was surrounded by other children, but I was alone. Alone in the classroom. Alone on the playground. Painfully alone.
Part of the problem was that I read constantly in class regardless of the lessons or activities that were going on. I was already reading the classics when I started school, so reading about Dick and Jane bored me to tears and frustrated me to no end. Instead of trying to getting me to participate, my teachers left me alone for the most part. It was easier for them. However, when a student asked why I didn’t have to participate, one of my first teachers announced to the class that I was retarded. I went to school with these same kids until high school, so my fate was sealed. I was retarded. I was different. I certainly wasn’t someone they wanted to play with.
(My mother told me, “They only tease you because they like you.” If your kids tell you that they’re being teased, please don’t respond with this reply. It won’t make them feel any better and it will undermine your credibility. Go to their school and find out what’s going on. It could save them years of unnecessary suffering.)
When I grew up, I realized that the one of the main things that set me apart was my introversion. My mother had always said that I was shy. But that wasn’t it. People thought that I was snobby and rude. That wasn’t it, either. I was perfectly capable of and comfortable with speaking to people — even strangers — about real issues. But I froze up whenever the situation called for small talk. I hate crowds, bars and parties. My idea of a party is having dinner or playing board games with a few close friends. While extroverts, who make up the majority of the population, thrive on social interactions, introverts such as myself require lots of alone time. We’re happy with our own company. And when forced to socialize, we require lots of alone time in order to recuperate.
The 12-step programs played a major role in my social development. It was there that I learned to say, “Hi, my name is Judie.” It was there that I learned that I excelled at leading meetings and that I enjoyed it immensely. Once, I attended a class that was sponsored by my very corporate job. I volunteered for one of the exercises, which entailed leading a meeting comprised of a number of belligerent, uncooperative people. I did such a good job of keeping the meeting on track that the facilitator pulled me to the side and asked, “Where did you learn to do that?” Of course I didn’t tell him that if I could keep a 12-step group in line I could keep anyone in line.
My sponsor told me early on that I didn’t have a substance problem, I had a people problem. And she had a point. I used my introversion as an excuse not to engage. I built walls around myself with books and a “don’t you dare approach me” attitude. Why? Because it was easier than allowing people in and being rejected.
The fact that I had a people problem — not that people had a problem with me — hit me hard. I’d like to say that this revelation changed everything overnight, but that’s not the way it happened. I started by forcing myself to interact with salespeople, taxi drivers, waiters and people in other service roles. The old me used to get in a cab, tell the driver my destination and not say another word until I paid him for the ride. Now, I get in a cab, thank him (it’s inevitably a him) for picking me up and ask him how his day is going. This practice has lead to some lovely conversations about everything from the mundane to the spiritual. One of my favorite conversations was with an older Pakistani gentleman about religion.
In time, chatting with “service people” extended to going out of my way to engage coworkers. When I opened conference lines, I would find out who was on the call and talk to them until the rest of the attendees joined. I did my best to ensure that everyone felt welcome. And I made sure that everyone had a voice by saying things like, “Bobbi, you’ve been uncharacteristically quiet today.” [Pause for laughter…] “What do you think of the approach that we’re discussing?”
At home, I made a real effort to stop whatever I was doing — reading, watching TV, playing with the computer — to really listen when my husband spoke. He wasn’t a distraction. He is the love of my life and deserves to be treated as such.
My spiritual practice, particularly metta, strengthened my desire to connect with people in a more kindly manner. I realized that most people have the same core desires: to be safe, well, free from anxiety and happy.
Yesterday, I was on the bus. A man about my age was sitting in front of me. He was nice looking, but was radiating a well-cultivated aura of toughness. A toddler ran down the aisle and the man started laughing and commenting to no one in particular that the tyke had a mind of his own. I said, “He’s really cute, isn’t he?” This launched a conversation about how his children had turned his life around. I learned that his beloved son was in Afghanistan. When I got up to exit the bus I asked him, “What’s your son’s first name, sir? I will remember him in my prayers.” He told me that his boy’s name is Justin. I said a prayer for the soldier immediately and he has crossed my mind several times since then. I prayed for Archangel Michael to keep Justin and all those around him safe from all harm.
And so, if only through prayer, I am connected to Justin. We’re all connected. We owe it to each other — and to ourselves — to play nice.