Michelle Obama, Mean Sixth Grade Boys, and Knowing Who You Are

I remember that day at the bus stop vividly. I was in sixth grade, and I had started a new school. I was on the brink of adolescence. My world was changing dramatically, and I was looking for some kind of confirmation that everything was okay—that I was okay. I was waiting for the bus after school, and I saw two boys in my class, Derek and Christopher[1], standing fifteen or so feet away. They were looking at me and whispering. I was wearing a particularly cute outfit that my mom had made me, and I felt great. I remember thinking that Derek and Chris were going to tell me how beautiful I was. I smiled at them. They walked up to me grinning, and Derek leaned over and whispered, “God, you’re ugly”, and they ran away laughing. My easygoing smile and confidence plummeted into the abyss, and it took several years for both to surface again.

Image result for destiny by john william waterhouse

“Destiny”, by John William Waterhouse

Who knows why Derek and Christopher decided to say what they did that day. Maybe it was because I was the new girl, and I was threatening their turf. Maybe it was because they were insecure adolescents themselves, and it bolstered their own security to destroy other people’s. It does not really matter why they said what they did or even what they said. And even though this particular story is my story, it could be anyone’s story. I am sure you could tell me stories like this about people who have said really cruel things to you. (And, by the way, I am really sorry that happened to you. It is so painful.) Derek and Christopher are symbolic of an obstacle we all face. All of us experience, at one time or another, people who tell us that we are not good enough in some way and that there is something deeply wrong with us. Maybe they tell us there is something wrong about our appearance or our abilities or our general worth as a person. No one is immune to the Dereks and Christophers of the world who walk around consciously or unconsciously shattering people’s worlds with their cruel words.

The other day, I read an article about Meryl Streep. She was once told that she was too ugly to be an actress.[2] Of course, she ignored this advice and has had a phenomenally successful career. Someone told film writer Kevin Smith he did not have what it took to be a successful writer.[3] He, too, defied this criticism.

It seems that most artists, writers, musicians, politicians, and other culturally influential people have had at least once person tell them they were too ugly, stupid, lazy, etc. to accomplish their goals. Somehow, these people were able to see past the shortsightedness of their critics and pursue their powerful potential. Michelle Obama has beautifully captured this idea of knowing who you are and moving past criticism. She says

“One of the lessons that I grew up with was to always stay true to yourself and never let what somebody else says distract you from your goals. And so when I hear about negative and false attacks, I really don’t invest any energy in them, because I know who I am.”[4]

This quote of hers is actually what inspired this blog post. I have been so impressed with the grace and class Michelle has shown in the last eight years as First Lady. Even when people have attacked her and President Obama with hate, ignorance and racism, she consistently responds with love, intelligence, and truth. She reminds me that eventually we all must know who we are, or we will rely on other people to tell us who we are. There are a lot misinformed and ignorant people who cannot see our potential. There are a lot of miserable people who believe that the only way they can pursue their potential is to destroy ours. She reminds me that if we listen to these voices, we will miss out on our own beautiful and unique lives. We will miss out on our own personal power.

Image result for Michelle Obama Pictures

It is not easy to know who we are, especially when we feel very different from other people; or when we are still figuring out our goals; or when we remember all of our failures. How do we go about knowing who we are? I do not have all of the answers to this, but here are some ideas that have helped me over the years:

  1. We are all utterly unique expressions of human rationality, spirit, wisdom, compassion and resilience.
  2. We are full of powerful potential because we have an almost unlimited capacity to develop all of the amazing character traits mentioned in #1.
  3. We have certain physical characteristics and appearances, passions, traits, and goals that give us clues about how we can develop our potential in a manner unique to us.
  4. We need to unfold this potential in the most authentic way that is loving to ourselves, to others, and to the Divine (if we believe in the Divine).
  5. Unfolding our potential is a learning process, and mistakes (even big ones) are normal. We need not beat ourselves up about our mistakes. Rather, we need to learn from them, to make amends if necessary, and to keep unfolding our potential in the wisdom we learn through our trials and errors.
  6. As we unfold our potential, we know more clearly who we are.
  7. As we authentically and lovingly unfold our potential, we will bring more beauty into the world, both through our appearance and our actions. Everyone has this ability.
  8. No one else is exactly like you, and so you are in better position than anyone else, even the critics, to know who you are.

It took me a while to learn who I was. For a while, my opinion of myself often depended on the people around me and their opinion of me, but I eventually had another shattering experience that actually changed my life for the better. Years ago, I had a group of friends that meant a great deal to me.[5] They made me feel secure and confident, and I felt that as long as they approved of me, I knew who I was and could approve of myself, too. One day, I discovered by accident that a friend in that group was doing self-destructive things with potentially dangerous consequences for those around her. None of my others friends knew what was going on, and I could not tell them without harming other people involved with the situation.  So I decided to confront my friend. She blew up at me. She accused me of lying and being jealous of her. She spread rumors about me to my other friends, and they definitely looked at me differently and distanced themselves from me. One of the worst moments of that period of my life was when I overheard one of my former friends call me “dragon b*&^%”.

Initially I felt shattered just like I had that day in sixth grade at the bus stop. I had looked to my friends for their validation, and now that I no longer had it, I did not know who I was. But this soon changed. As I searched my motivation in confronting my self-destructive friend, I became convinced that I had made the right decision and that, given the circumstances, it was the only thing I could do. I realized that even though my friends were angry with me, it was because they were either acting out of ignorance, or (as in the case of my self-destructive friend) they were acting from bad motives.

I suddenly realized that I knew who I was and that it was not that important what other people thought. This experience taught me that the most important thing was that I did my best to be authentic and loving to myself, to God, and to others. If I did these things, I could trust myself, even if people around me were angry or critical of me. In time, my friends discovered my friend’s self-destructive behavior, and many of them apologized to me. At that point, I did not really need their approval, and I realized that I was able to be more loving both to them and to myself. Now that I was more certain of who I was, I could focus more on being a good friend to them, rather than worrying about what they thought of me. I would be lying if I said that criticism never bothers me now. It does. But it no longer shatters me or detracts me for long from pursuing what I know I am meant to do.
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Dear Mean Sixth Grade Boys: I know who I am now, and I hope you know who you are, too. Love and Peace to you.

A lot of the difficulties in our lives stem from us letting other people decide who we are or deciding that we can only be who we are if we make other people less of who they are. When we let people decide who we are, they miss out on our power. When we think we can only be who we are by destroying others, we miss out on their power. What the world needs most is people lovingly unfolding their potential who know who they are. When we do this, we are powerful together.

Thank you, Michelle, for your beautiful spirit and your inspiration to men and women everywhere.

[1] The names and some of the details of this event have been changed for privacy.

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/23/meryl-streep-ugly-actress_n_5197683.html

[3] http://screenwritingumagazine.com/2017/01/12/taking-wisdom-one-kevin-smiths-first-haters/

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/03/06/michelle-obamas-most-insp_n_172485.html

[5] Some of the details of this event have been changed for privacy.

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