We are such fragile, delicate beings. Inside the hard-shelled exterior of coolness, competence, and too-tough-to-care grown-up-ness we are all one word away from elation or despair far more often than we dare to admit. It doesn’t matter so much whether it’s a deliberately critical or slighting remark or it’s a supremely thoughtless slip of the lip. It might be as tiny as that moment when a really marvelous person very simply forgets to say that one little offhand, passing thing that he ordinarily says when he is leaving the library office just as you get in on a Wednesday to turn in your book–but you realize on the occasion that you depend on hearing it to make that moment shine. What power is in choosing or denying discretion and politesse!
Sometimes people clue us in when they’re in grave need of that word of assurance or generosity, but far more often than not, we all play guessing games a whole lot of the time about what others need to hear–or what they really, truly, deeply do not need to hear. It may be merely that the moment is wrong. End of a bad day; someone was passing in the hall and not supposed to overhear. Got passed over for the promotion or raise. Got the littlest sliver in a pinky finger that morning and it still hurts. Some days, darn it, any one of us can simply be needier and more sensitive than usual.
What spurs this rumination? I was asked recently by someone who couldn’t attend it what I had thought about a particular performance and I responded, shall we say, with blunt honesty. I tried to be discreet, making sure that there was no one proximal to overhear, but I know I wasn’t kind. Truthfully, I know it was also strictly my opinion–nearly everybody around was clearly loving the very performance I found directly opposite to my taste and wishes. What really horrified me, though, was not this thing that I obviously didn’t enjoy but that I was so mean as to say so to another person when there was no positive thing to be gained from the commentary by anyone at all. It struck me afterward as spiteful and small. On top of that, I saw an online remark from another person about something that was equally unappealing to the commentator, a remark that was equally opinionated and mean and in a position only to hurt anyone involved who might read it or hear of it. And there it was, fully public and in writing. I was appalled at the inappropriateness and crassness of it. And instantly appalled at how familiar it seemed. I had just done the same thing. Just because it wasn’t made public doesn’t absolve me in the least. I am sorry I said such a thing. It was an expression of a negative opinion that needn’t have been so harshly exposed to light and did no one any good, least of all me now that I regretted having said it.
Sadly, most of us are capable of having peculiarly dimwitted days of insensitivity or have that moment of foot-in-mouth disease at precisely the wrong time with exactly the least deserving or the one least able to let it roll right on by unnoticed. It’s not only surprising how easily we are catapulted to the stars by a little word of kindness or a perfectly modest compliment, it’s downright shocking how easily that tenuous delight and semblance of self-confidence is deflated and demolished in the next instant by so little a thing as, say, another person not confirming the praise. No need for actual disagreement or intentional omission, but the fact of that brief negligence is enough to plummet the last moment’s high spirits back into the abyss.
Are we all really so vulnerable, so shallow? Not usually–but when the moment is just that necessary bit off kilter, even those of us who ordinarily are the most steeped in aplomb, who seem to be marinated in the holy oil of contentment and stability, these too can crumble instantly to dust like stale biscuits. And none of us is wise and sensitive and compassionate and insightful enough to be perpetually attuned to even our own weak moments in this state, let alone others’. So all I can hope, myself, is that I gradually learn to pay better attention to this strange complexity and keep my ill-aimed darts to myself. And beyond it, that I’ll somehow grow much more mature and build a thicker skin, some handy sort of a human chain-mail suit that will, when the day comes that I find I am in dire need, not let me fold up and collapse just from one little puncturing remark but let me know, instead, that it was only one stray and unplanned word. And after all, that the flimsy breakable things that we are have beauty and purpose, too, and even those that made us crack will eventually remember it’s so, if they have any beauty and purpose of their own.