In 1988 I attended a one week workshop for Adult Children of Alcoholics. During that workshop I learned something about myself. I learned much more than this one thing but there was this one something that I am remembering today. I learned that I had some preconceived notions about older women, meaning women who were 15 or 20 years older than myself. I tended not to trust them or to consider them as possibilities for friendships. There was a woman there who was interested in being friends with me and I paid no attention to her. When it came up that she was interested in being friends, I said something about not being interested in being friends with her. My prime reason for my lack of interest made little sense. It was because she was somewhat older than me.
I know where that comes from in me. I'm not blaming anyone else for it. I had had a problem for a long time trusting women to be friends and especially trusting older women to be friends. Why? Because I had such bad experiences in my family with my mother abusing me emotionally and such bad memories of my grandmother who was cold and harsh. I'm not blaming them. Please understand. It is not either of their faults that I reacted this way to other women in my life. My reaction is my own. Neither my grandmother nor my mother set out to make it hard for me to trust women to be friends. Both my grandmother and my mother had a set of psychological problems that had nothing to do with me. My reactions to having known them are my own and my reactions can change. It's called growing up. It's lifelong, this process of growing up.
In the last 17 years I've grown up more. I am happy to say that now I am able to appreciate women as friends of many different ages. Several of the women that I admire the most are in their eighties. I am now in that age group of women who I would have distanced myself from 15 years ago. I find that in the age group of which I am a member that there are many vibrant intelligent talented people who are working to make a difference in whatever area of the world that they find themselves. I enjoy their company and they appear to enjoy mine. What was I thinking 17 years ago? Whatever it was, I no longer think that. I appreciate people. I realize how easy it is to discount someone based on some quality about them that somehow makes them invisible to some of us when we are .... too blind to see them? When our eyes are closed due to some self imposed set of blinders?
Yesterday I went to a meeting and was the second one to get there. The first one to be sitting in the room when I got there is a man who is about my age. I'll call him Tom, not his real name. I've noticed at previous meetings that Tom didn't seem to be much into my methods of creating art. That's okay. We all have different tastes in art. I had noticed that Tom had never come into my studio when he was nearby and my studio was open. Well, that's okay too. I didn't need him to come in if he wasn't interested. Yesterday Tom asked my advice about something that I know about. Something that was going to cost him several thousand dollars. Tom stated that he had a limited budget.
I asked him questions about how he was going to use what he wanted to buy and what the prices currently were. I gave him information about what I knew and made some suggestions on alternative purchases that would save him money. Another person arrived at the meeting. This other person, a man who is in the same age range, is knowledgeable too about the matter on which the first fellow was asking advice. I'll call him Jeff. During the course of the meeting, the three of us continued to discuss the first fellow's best course of action.
Jeff's advice was based on his having a certain kind of equipment already and on Jeff's method of creating art. Tom's method of creating art is more similar to my method of creating art. Jeff didn't ask Tom how he was going to use the equipment. Jeff approached giving advice on the purchase from the standpoint of creating art in the same manner as Jeff creates art. Jeff is an excellent artist, by the way, and creates beautiful artwork. This isn't about who creates the best artwork. This is about who people choose to ask for advice. Jeff told Tom that one of my suggestions could be a good alternative. When the meeting ended, Tom told Jeff that he would call him to get more advice from him. Okay. That's his decision. He could have taken both our numbers to call later.
Jeff has great equipment and the expertise to use it to maximize his ability to create what he wants to create. He has the money to buy whatever he wants. Tom has a limited budget, a limited ability to handle that kind of equipment, and different working methods. He had an option to listen to the advice of two people and he has chosen one of them to give him advice on an expensive purchase who hasn't asked him how he is going to use the equipment and has assumed that Tom needs to work in the same manner that Jeff works. Okay. We're all free to make our choices.
So why didn't Tom choose to call us both later to ask for advice? I don't know. However, I suspect that the reason is because Tom feels more comfortable asking a man than he does asking a woman. Tom is almost clueless about the things he is buying. No, I didn't say that to him or imply that. If I did, then, of course it would be understandable why he was asking Jeff for advice. I was polite and considerate of Tom throughout the meeting. I asked about his family, listened to his news, paid attention to his artwork and complimented it, gave him information about the equipment he was thinking of buying and suggested alternatives. There was no point of rudeness or unpleasantness. But he, faced with several possibilities for obtaining information, chose only one of them.
I could choose to be insulted but I feel more sorry for Tom than insulted. I have a considerable amount of experience in buying and working with the equipment that he is thinking of buying. Probably more experience than Jeff has. I think the only reason that Tom asked for my opinion was that I was the only one in the room for a while and he didn't know that Jeff was coming. There's a good chance he'll spend more than he needs to on some of it and won't be able to purchase some better equipment because he'll run out of money. But he'll be in his comfort zone with Jeff.
How many times in my life have I done something like this? I'll never know but I try to pay attention now to the possibilities of making a choice like Tom's. Rather than limiting my vision to only people that I feel the most comfortable with for some reason that goes back decades, I spend time with and listen to all kinds of people, regardless of my preconceptions of them based on some silly thing I believed when I was 15 or 22 or 31 or 42.
Funny but a woman I met recently blew some of my preconceptions based on appearances out of the water for me. She is a retired bookkeeper. She has a matronly appearance. She looks as though she had just baked cookies this afternoon and wants you to come by for a glass of milk and cookies. She is easy to smile and always polite. She can dig a hole for a fence post with a post hole digger and work with a cross cut saw. These talents give me a whole new perspective on her.
Have you ever sat at a table having lunch with others and then you notice that one person never looks you in the eye, never engages you in conversation, and sits facing away from you? Say that there are only three of you at the table and the person does this. I've had this happen with certain people. They act as though I am not present. Or you meet them on the street while you are with a friend or your spouse and they direct all conversation to the person you are with and they make no eye contact with you.
What does that tell you? Are they discounting your existence for some reason? Have you wondered why? Is it you specifically or is it something about you? If you've never done something to explain their reacting in this way, have you speculated about why they act this way? Why they aren't able to connect with you? Appreciate you? Enjoy your company? Why can't they ask you something about you? If they know little about you (and how could they since they show no interest), then it isn't you at all. It's something else known only to them. Maybe something that they'll become aware of someday and then grow out of? Or maybe something about the way that they are permanently? Something that will never change? Are they limited in how they view the world and in how they connect with people? Do they make the same kinds of decisions again and again regardless of the opportunities they've had to make different decisions?
I've seen young people do this recently too. I've become aware of it happening more to me since I am now definitely an "older woman" with the appearance that goes with it. Once upon a time my looks drew attention that I took for granted until I no longer got that attention any more. When it's gone, you notice that it's gone but for a long time when you are a woman you take that attention for granted. One day a young man who works in a store carries something heavy out to your car and calls you "Mam" and you know that you have changed for good. You are an older woman and people react differently to you. Unless you look like Cher. And Madonna? Did you know that she is 47? Madonna is 47. But Madonna and Cher will always be listened to and paid attention to. Those of us who actually look like we are our age, who aren't known for the money we can spend, and who aren't show biz professionals get different reactions than the Chers of the world.
For you maybe the reason why certain people discount your existence may be different than why certain people discount my existence. It might be your youth? your race? your ethnicity? your religion? your gender? your sexual preference? your marital status? the fact that you are single? your education? your lack of formal education? a physical limitation? your height? your weight? your profession? The reasons why someone else can discount our existences and find us uninteresting are endless. Yet it is the person who discounts others and finds so much of the world boring who limits their experience of the world. It is easy to understand how someone can find the world so boring if they aren't capable of finding out what is interesting in other people.
When the person who discounts your existence is a relative, then being discounted is particularly frustrating. However, the reasons behind their inability to appreciate you may be no different than the reasons behind why others discount you. Your relative is not immune from the same kinds of foibles that afflict others who suffer from an inability to appreciate others.
I'm not saying that everyone should love or even like everyone all the time. Not even the everyone's who are our relatives. But we all have certain experiences that are the same. Such as that no one has a choice in who our relatives are. We all grow up into individuals who have preferences, likes, dislikes, interests that are uniquely ours. We all sometimes wish that our children or parents were somewhat different. That we all had an easier time visiting during holidays. That Uncle Whatsisname wasn't so opinionated about something. That daughter-in-law Sally wasn't such a clean freak. That sister-in-law Betsy wasn't so messy. That son-in-law Roger didn't drink so much. Sometimes we don't realize that we ourselves aren't that much more entertaining or pleasant than Uncle whatsisname. We fail to recognize that our relatives are stuck with us too and that they are darned kind for putting up with us. We fail to recognize the value of being loved by others who love us just because ... No one said that they had to love us. They just loved us.
No one has to put up with being abused. That isn't in question as far as I'm concerned. No one has to do that. No one has to spend time with an abuser. Yet there are those who decide that a parent or other relative or potential friend is below their radar in terms of liking/disliking/loving for unknown reasons. A parent who loved them. A parent whose only crime was in somehow having irritated them one day. Then that parent is discounted as though they never had lived, never had loved their children, never had done anything worthwhile. Or maybe it is a parent who has done this to a child as Mark Sichel's (Mark is the author of Healing from Family Rifts) father seems to have done. Just discounted him for no reason that most people could understand.
I can imagine such a parent or such a child sitting at a table making no eye contact with the other person, just waiting for the minutes to go by so that they can get away, get away from the reviled relative. They have lost the ability to appreciate that person. They have lost the ability to love that person. They no longer love. They discount the person as worthy of their time, attention, and energy. They make the decision to spend time with others and ignore the person who wanted to be part of their life. They make a mistake but they are adults and have a right to their mistakes.
What is the point of what I have written today? I don't know if I have made the point yet but this is what I wanted to say: I want you to pay attention to the people who you do see regularly in your life. I want you to pay attention when you start to ignore someone. I want you to listen to people and to ask them about themselves. I want you to look at them and make eye contact. I want you to ask people about themselves who you wouldn't normally ask.
I want you to find someone to appreciate who you had no idea that you would appreciate. I want you to be able to grow. I want you to find out if you are among those of us who can grow and to applaud yourself for your being able to grow. If you are already a person who finds the entire world fascinating and can find something to appreciate in most people whom you meet, I applaud you for being who you are. I am sure that I would enjoy spending time with you.
Not everyone is able to grow. I don't know whether to feel sorry for those who can't grow or just to be happy that I am not one of them. Maybe they have something to teach the rest of us even if it is only how not to be like them.