When I was a teenager, I met someone who said that I surprised him. I was smarter than I sounded, he said, with that accent of mine. I was the epitome of an impressionable teen: I had no sense of self, I was an outsider, never really fitting in with these people or those people. But I tried. And failed. Like The Runaway Bride, I didn’t know how I liked my proverbial eggs.
But, boy was I offended.
Here’s a real picture of me before I discovered combat boots and Manic Panic:
Okay, not really, but I’m really surprised that my face didn’t freeze like this when I was a teenager, only with my eyes rolled up so far toward my brain that I looked like Storm gearing up to rain down hail on the wicked.
Now, years later, I don’t even remember who said that, if they said exactly that, how they said that, or how I came to believe that. Funny how memory works. But I took it to heart and worked hard to adopt the “Midwest Accent.” It was the “standard English” that was supposedly adopted by newscasters, a so-called standard American accent without those Southern habits of speech. [Side note: Linguistics is a fascinating field of study. For a REALLY brief yet interesting summary of the evolution of American dialects, read the “Popularity” section of Wikipedia’s article.]
Anyway, the back-handed compliment and its B-side insult stuck. I knew I had been successful in shedding it when people told me “You don’t sound Southern!” and once when I was visiting a gas station in Laurel, Mississippi, and the cashier said/asked, “Y’ain’t from round here, are ya?”
The point is, the original statement, that my Southern accent supposedly made me sound stupid; and that hit a sore point and stuck with me enough for me to change my speech in order to not sound stupid.
I changed my behavior based on the opinion of someone I don’t even remember.
Maybe I was stupid after all.
But was it true?
It was perceived by someone else as true, and I adopted that way of thinking. So, sure, it was true.
Could I absolutely know that it was true?
I couldn’t interview every single person to know if it were true or not. So, no.
How did I react, what happened, when I believed that thought?
I was offended that someone thought I was stupid based on my accent and speech patterns and not my words or ideas.
Who would I be without the thought?
Someone who didn’t worry about the opinions of others, someone who didn’t care if anyone else thought I was stupid. Probably, if I’m entirely honest, that I would not judge others based on their accent, either.
Had I known those four questions, I think my accent (and my life) would probably be totally different.
Those four questions are a basic primer on critical thinking.
We hear and see so much garbage these days, and sometimes it’s offensive garbage. But when we see or hear something that offends us, how often have we taken the time to examine why we’re offended? Chances are, it’s far more likely that we had a knee-jerk reaction to the offense.
Sure, the surface “why” might be, “Dude thinks I’m stupid,” but why is it–or any other disparaging statement–so offensive to our sensibilities?
Because it hits our sore points. It hits those little buttons we have that trigger our emotional reactions. Those little buttons are messes that haven’t been cleaned up yet, wounds that haven’t healed. They are vulnerabilities, too, points to exploit by those who wish to anger or hurt us.
My wounds are not as they once were. But now, when someone acts as if I were stupid, or calls me some variant of stupid, I don’t care for two reasons:
1. I don’t think I’m stupid.
2. That person’s opinion of me means less than shit to me.
Whatever spot it was that feared being called stupid has been healed, and I am not hurt by it.
As much as I’d love to continue viewing the world through my rose-colored glasses, it would be silly of me to deny the fact that there are people in it who enjoy hurting other people. They like finding those sore points, sliding a knife into those wounds, and twisting once the knife has hit its hilt.
And then they laugh as they dump 40 pounds of commercial-grade pool salt in it.
There are those people. There will always be those people, at least for the foreseeable future. And we can’t change them. They are who they are and they act as they act.
Sometimes my only way to deal with people whose sexual orientation is schedenfreude is to be grateful that my life isn’t so miserable that I need to get off on the misery of others.
What we can do, on the other hand, is to look for those sore places in ourselves and see what we can do to heal them. We can actually thank those people (silently, not by baking brownies for them or anything) for showing us our sore points.
Because it’s then that we have the opportunity to drain the wound and heal.