The Mean

two young boys reading a book in the park

Flowering season.

“Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.”

Maria Popova

The mean girl conversation is usually in rotation in our household. I counsel our high school age daughter to treat all mean girl exchanges as information -- and to take care that she not slip into that groove. Mean girls are good role models -- they show you how NOT to be. And who wants to peak in high school anyway? I repeat the famous Maya Angelou quote: “When people show you who they are believe them.” I tell her that mean girls can grow up. But as I dispense advice I know that my words are too linear and convey none of the complexity around this topic. And though we are surrounded by invocations to be kind, to be present, we are in a new era of Mean. I'm a firm believer in the presence of collective currents, and our national one is at a low. Trolling and shaming are an alarming new norm, especially towards women. Manners, and I'm not talking about pretentious mannerisms like doilies and monograms, help gird against sloppiness and impulse. The excuse me, the how are you, the eye contact -- are vital to our societal well being. And because manners are contagious, they often discourage petty behavior.

Intellectually I know that the only control we have in this world is how we move through the space directly in front of us and how we interact with those who intersect it. Day to day practice of this principle is another matter. You have no control over how you are perceived, only how you behave. And it is very difficult to erase past transgressions. I realized this at a recent college reunion when I approached one woman with a hello and curiosity, and she pushed me away, arms crossed, with a reminder of something I had said thirty years earlier. I remember little of college and often fret my hippocampus has walked off in some kind of protest, so I could not share her memory. I realized that I was assigned to a particular judgement and further conversation was unwelcome, so I promptly dispatched myself. I had no doubt that I’d misbehaved but did wish she could have gauged that I was a gentler and more seasoned soul. As I walked home I mentally replayed the encounter and offered her excuses: I was mired in a depression from the death of a dear friend and classmate and didn’t like myself. I was insecure and trying on a different persona to fit in better and was a disaster. I was… I was holding another futile conversation in my head.

I reflected on times, the ones that I remember, when I was careless. I remembered times when I was arrogant and corrected someone’s grammar, or when I tuned out the dull person, or was sharp after a glass of wine in an effort to be clever. I like to think of my fumbles as indeliberate. Most were, but they were falls from grace just the same. I noted that I slipped into mean when circumstances were mean to me and I mirrored my environment like a junkyard dog. This is no new revelation about human nature -- sadness and anger reduce our ability to be thoughtful and amplify our narcissism. And I try to remember this caveat when someone is being a vexatious spirit to me. I am not sure if I will return to another college reunion, but I can redouble my efforts to take responsibility for my own lapses in kindness, and take my own advice.

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