Lately, I’ve taken to giving the same advice to my students when the conversation inevitably turns to friends, relationships, and getting along with other people in general. It’s a time-honored notion that is much easier said than believed, and I always add the caveat that it’s taken me the better part of my 45 years on this planet to believe it about 60% of the time myself. That advice is this: “What other people think of me is none of my damn business.” Sometimes I leave out the “damn,” depending on the sensibilities of the person I’m speaking with, but I usually try to keep it in there, if for no other reason than the shock value.
And it’s true, if you really dig deeply enough and think about it. There’s absolutely nothing I can do to control what other people think about me. I mean, I do control the way I carry myself through the world, but I absolutely cannot control how other people react to me when they encounter me. While it’s still important to be cognizant of the sensibilities of others, I’ve come to believe that I don’t have to go through life apologizing for taking up space in the world.
I’m a recovering people-pleaser–my penchant for pleasing others is probably why I’ve leaned into the “Grump” persona over the last several years. Originally, it started as a defensive mechanism–if I’m a Grump, then when people don’t like me, I can just blame it on that, or I can just call them jerks and move on. Now, it’s become a metaphor for the way I want to live my life–on my own terms, as my own self, with my own interests, hobbies, and pursuits. I don’t have to pretend to like something that someone else likes just so they’ll like me anymore–I’m free to disagree, and so is everyone else. It’s for this reason that I’ve been able to do things like wear a kilt to work every Friday, knit my heart out in faculty meetings and other public spaces, play the bagpipes, and a thousand other quirks that I’ve decided are just part of who I am, and not weird things that separate me from others. Because I’ve also come to realize that if I have this rich of an inner life, that others may have the same, even if they don’t wear it on their sleeves the way I do (sometimes, literally, like I wear this kilt jacket with really dramatic sleeves!)
I know it would seem that as a monastic, I shouldn’t be like this. I should conform, look the same, be the same, act the same as everyone else. But one thing I’ve learned from monastic folk over the years is that even in the monastery no one person is the same as another. I met a monk once who liked to lift weights in his spare time. He came into the refectory for breakfast one morning with a t-shirt on that read, “Brother, dost thou even hoist?” Hilarious! I’ve met others who paint, draw, take beautiful landscape photos, write blogs, make tapestries, work as shepherds and farmhands, and make fudge and fruitcake to make ends meet for their communities. The world of monasticism is as diverse as the people in it, and the world in general is the same. It’s a shame that we don’t encourage more people to just be themselves and pursue what makes them happy and useful in the world, rather than trying to put everyone in neat little boxes tied up with ribbons (“..and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same.”)
So, as the musical Shrek told us all, “Let your freak flag fly,” and you be you. Grumpy, or dopey, or sneezy, or whatever makes you “you,” do that, and if you can make the world a better place by doing so, so much the better. Because you’re already making the world a better place just by being you. And what other people think of you is none of your damn business. So, that’s one less thing to stress about in this crazy world.