Observing, Thinking, Changing

Letting Others Define Us

I came across this late last night, shared on social media as a “heartwarming” story. Instead of having a sensation of heartwarming, all I had as I read the last line was an overwhelming sense of how we often let others define us so profoundly.

Control carefully who you let mark your canvas. Photo by DttSP

Control carefully who you let mark your canvas.

Photo by DttSP

I’ll never forget Easter 1946. I was 14, my little sister Ocy was 12, and my older sister Darlene 16. We lived at home with our mother, and the four of us knew what it was to do without many things. My dad had died five years before, leaving Mom with 7 school kids to raise and no money.

By 1946, my older sisters were married, and my brothers had left home. A month before Easter, the pastor of our church announced that a special Easter offering would be taken to help a poor family. He asked everyone to save and give sacrificially.

When we got home, we talked about what we could do. We decided to buy 50 pounds of potatoes and live on them for a month. This would allow us to save $20 of our grocery money for the offering. When we thought, we realized that if we kept our electric lights turned out as much as possible and didn’t listen to the radio, we’d save money on that month’s electric bill. Darlene got as many house and yard cleaning jobs as possible, and both of us babysat for everyone we could. For 15 cents, we could buy enough cotton loops to make three pot holders to sell for $1. We made $20 on pot holders.

That month was one of the best of our lives.

Every day we counted the money to see how much we’d saved. At night we’d sit in the dark and talk about how the poor family was going to enjoy having the money the church would give them. We had about 80 people in church, so figured that whatever amount we had to give, the offering would surely be 20 times that much. After all, every Sunday the pastor had reminded everyone to save for the sacrificial offering.

The day before Easter, Ocy and I walked to the grocery store and got the manager to give us three crisp $20 bills and one $10 bill for all our change.

We ran all the way home to show Mom and Darlene. We had never had so much money before.

That night we were so excited we could hardly sleep. We didn’t care that we wouldn’t have new clothes for Easter; we had $70 for the sacrificial offering.

We could hardly wait to get to church! On Sunday morning, rain was pouring. We didn’t own an umbrella, and the church was over a mile from our home, but it didn’t seem to matter how wet we got. Darlene had cardboard in her shoes to fill the holes. The cardboard came apart, and her feet got wet.

But we sat it church proudly. I heard some teenagers talking about the Smith girls having on their old dresses. I looked at them in their new clothes, and I felt rich.

When the sacrificial offering was taken, we were sitting on the second row from the front. Mom put in the $10 bill, and each of us kids put in a $20.

As we walked home after church, we sang all the way. At lunch, Mom had a surprise for us. She had bought a dozen eggs, and we had boiled Easter eggs with our fried potatoes!

Late that afternoon, the minister drove up in his car. Mom went to the door, talked with him for a moment, and then came back with an envelope in her hand. We asked what it was, but she didn’t say a word. She opened the envelope and out fell a bunch of money. There were three crisp $20 bills, one $10, and seventeen $1 bills.

Mom put the money back in the envelope. We didn’t talk, just sat and stared at the floor. We had gone from feeling like millionaires to feeling like poor white trash. We kids had such a happy life that we felt sorry for anyone who didn’t have our Mom and Dad for parents and a house full of brothers and sisters and other kids visiting constantly. We thought it was fun to share silverware and see whether we got the spoon or fork that night. We had two knives that we passed around to whoever needed them. I knew we didn’t have a lot of things that other people had, but I’d never thought we were poor.

That Easter day I found out we were. The minister had brought us the money for the poor family, so we must be poor. I didn’t like being poor. I looked at my dress and worn-out shoes and felt so ashamed – I didn’t even want to go back to church. Everyone there probably already knew we were poor!

I thought about school. I was in the 9th grade and at the top of my class of over 100 students. I wondered if the kids at school knew that we were poor. I decided that I could quit school since I had finished the 8th grade. That was all the law required at that time. We sat in silence for a long time. Then it got dark, and we went to bed. All that week, we girls went to school and came home, and no one talked much.

Finally on Saturday, Mom asked us what we wanted to do with the money. What did poor people do with money? We didn’t know. We’d never known we were poor. We didn’t want to go to church on Sunday, but Mom said we had to. Although it was a sunny day, we didn’t talk on the way.

Mom started to sing, but no one joined in and she only sang one verse. At church, we had a missionary speaker. He talked about how churches in Africa made buildings out of sun-dried bricks, but they needed money to buy roofs. He said $100 would put a roof on a church. The minister said, “Can’t we all sacrifice to help these poor people?” We looked at each other and smiled for the first time in a week.

Mom reached into her purse and pulled out the envelope. She passed it to Darlene. Darlene gave it to me, and I handed it to Ocy. Ocy put it in the offering.

When the offering was counted, the minister announced that it was a little over $100. The missionary was excited. He hadn’t expected such a large offering from our small church. He said, “You must have some rich people in this church.”

Suddenly it struck us! We had given $87 of that “little over $100.”

We were the rich family in the church! Hadn’t the missionary said so? From that day on I’ve never been poor again.

Now, I’m sure this is fiction – $70 in 1946 is about $855 today, for a start – but it doesn’t matter. I love fiction, because it helps me see certain facts of life much more clearly than I can in the muddled up real world, and then apply those facts of life out here in the real world.

The narrator was happily going through life until someone told her she was this label (poor), and she took it to heart, as complete unchallenged truth, and then had to figure out how to make her life fit that new definition of herself. Then she took a passing comment – some call it a throwaway comment, though I hate that phrase – and she latched onto it and built up an entire lifetime of self-confidence based on that second new definition (rich). Again, she took it as completely unchallenged truth and let it define her.

Clearly, the way it happened in the second case (the passing rich comment) isn’t as damaging as the other way around, but it opens the door for the other way around: someone could make a passing comment about her being poor a week/month/year/decade later, and it could undermine all of her self-confidence just as the minister bringing them the money for the poor family did.

All I could think was:

It’s not good to give anyone this much power over you.

And yet letting others’ opinions of us define us is so much an accepted part of our society that it’s the key ingredient of this “heartwarming” story.

It’s not just because the narrator was a child at the time, either. As I reflected on it, I thought of the countless hours/days/weeks/etc of my adult life I’ve wasted worrying over what others think of me, and how I’ve listened to others do the same. It’s commonplace enough that it’s regularly portrayed in fiction, as well. Indeed, I suspect it’s a key ingredient of how our society has succeeded in lasting so long (remember, throughout human history, there have been other societies that haven’t worked out – so whatever rules we find in our own society are, in part, the rules that have ensured its longevity).

I think it’s good to be aware of what others think of you – I’m aware of one person, for example, who is quite fickle towards me, and others who dislike me to greater or lesser degrees. We shouldn’t all like each other, so this is fine, but my point is: If I thought or assumed that they liked me, and then interacted with them based on that, and they were short and snappy, that could be a blow to me. Knowing where they stand on the “like/dislike” spectrum, however, means that I better know what to expect with each interaction – or, in the case of the fickle person, I know to drop all expectations and just roll with whatever comes.

So of course I think we should spend some time thinking about what others seem to think of us, but the endless agonizing I sometimes do has really got to stop. Figuring out that others think you’re … poor … authoritative … wise … extravagant … thoughtful … bitchy … etc … is one thing; letting their opinion define you is a whole nother thing. That is, thusly figuring out how to act poor / authoritative / wise / extravagant / thoughtful / bitchy / etc, just because that’s what they think you are, and truly they know best, is quite daft, really. Realize their voice is but one of many – and far from the most important one. That’s yours.

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