The question I hear my daughter’s friends ask one another most often may well be, “Do You Know What She Said?” No, I don’t know what she said, and quite honestly I couldn’t be less interested – and it doesn’t much matter who “she” is, unless “she” is my wife.
I used to think it was just Middle School girls who worried intensely about every word that crossed the lips of other people, until my daughter got to be High School age – and then College age. Now I wonder if it ever stops. I have never seen a group of people get more upset over the opinions of others than my daughter and her friends do. In fact, I was thinking about it the other day when I realized that my assessment wasn’t fair at all. In fact, I can remember many times in my life when I cared intensely about the opinions of others. What may be unique to young women is that they can get very worked up about what somebody said about someone they have never even met. I never got really excited about that, and can’t imagine that I ever will.
The more I reflected on the endless drama that plays out around me the more I was led to remember how much my mother, in particular, seemed to care about what the neighbors thought. It was as if she believed that their opinion about our family mattered in some way that might cause substantial harm should anyone learn of it. I never have been quite clear precisely how that harm would come about, or what sort of harm it would be, or at whose hands the harm would be dealt. I suppose that’s because the harm was the product of her over active imagination and had no basis in reality – but that didn’t stop me from believing that particular fiction as a child and, later, as a young adult.
The truth is that what most of the world thinks about you or me is of very little consequence. In fact, most of the world has very little idea that either of us exist. While that may come as a blow to the ego, it’s actually a very good thing. Somewhere in my mid-thirties I figured out that most of the people who were gutsy enough to say they didn’t approve of something I said or did had a few issues of their own. Their biggest issue was social awkwardness as evidenced by their feeling it was appropriate to share their opinion with me. Their second issue was an inflated sense of their own importance in assuming I cared about their opinion. Their third issue was a fair amount of anxiety when they weren’t in control of what was going on around them. In fact, I had my first real taste of freedom in my late thirties when my boss felt compelled to remind me that she had the power to fire me. I responded – truthfully – by saying that I didn’t have any intention of staying in the field I was in for the rest of my life, and so if I got fired it wouldn’t be the end of my world. I had been both permanently laid off and fired before, and each time chose a new field and worked my way back up the ladder. I had learned that, despite my parent’s concern for the opinions of others, I was the master of my own destiny.
I’m not saying that I was perfect at it then – or now – but I am saying that the knowledge that no matter what happened I would land on my feet brought with it a high degree of freedom and confidence. That was an important lesson in the work place, but it was a lesson that transferred to my spiritual life as well. When the Episcopal Bishop of Milwaukee told me I would never be normal because I was abused as a child I knew both that he was wrong and that just because he closed one door didn’t mean there were countless other doors waiting to be opened.
When we allow the opinions of others, whether real or imagined, limit our freedom we need to realize that those limits are self-imposed. We can at any moment chose to disconnect ourselves from much of life’s drama by simply deciding it isn’t important to us. I often encourage people to examine how much time in the course of a day they spend worrying about things they either can’t control or don’t really care about. You might try it. You may find you are amazed at how much time you can free up and how much stress you can eliminate by filtering out the nonsense people send your way!