Friday, November 14, 2014

"But You'll Never Be Strong"

I am tired of being constantly on the defense.  It's something that starts at my job and continues at home and has dogged my steps as long as I can remember.

As someone who works, ultimately, in customer service1, I have found that the best way to handle attacks is by refocusing a customer away from whatever has upset them onto what I can do for them.  At its simplest, for example, if a customer in coach is upset that the airline does not provide blankets, there's nothing I can do to suddenly change the policy that we don't do that.  But instead of saying, "I'm sorry I just don't have a blanket for you.  The company did away with those years ago to make ticket prices cheaper," I focus on what I can offer.  "I'm sorry you're cold.  Can I bring you some hot coffee or tea to warm you up?"  A good majority of people will take me up on the offer.  And an even greater majority are at least happier because they've been acknowledged and offered something.  Only a very small percentage of them are still upset and, well, some people just like to suffer and you're not going to be able to make them happy anyway.

I deal with incidents like these, smaller and greater, all day long when I am working.  Very few people want to speak to their Flight Attendant because they've achieved Nirvana.  (I do get the occasional "thank you" and smile, but we're talking about normal circumstances.)  Even my coworkers put me on the defense throughout the day.  Gate agents get upset when I won't let them close the aircraft door because I'm trying to follow procedure.  As a Purser, other Flight Attendants (especially those senior to me) sometimes try to challenge my decision-making.  Even catering or maintenance occasionally tries to have a go at me.  And when things go more seriously wrong, I have to fill out reports defending my crew and myself to the Big Guys Upstairs.  It's exhausting.

But it's my job.  I'm good at it, and I deal with it.  And then I go home, where, if I haven't forgotten about it by the time my 45 minute drive from the airport is over, then I indulge in a bubble bath and a glass of wine and then I forget about it.  Just like the majority of the world that understands the concept of compartmentalization.

When it hurts is when it comes from the people who love us.  Nobody likes feeling attacked, but most of us find ways to brush it off or dismiss it…until it comes from someone whose opinion of you matters.  I was thinking about this carefully over the past month.  I've started dating someone new, which has meant meeting his friends, which has meant wondering how much I should care about their opinions of me.  Of course I should want them to like me, but what happens if they don't?  And if they don't, then why don't they?  And how will my guy react to their disapproval or criticism?  In one instance, he felt the need to mention something to me about it.  "Hey, just so you know, when you do X, it's really not appreciated."


It was something of a bombshell of a moment for me.  I spent the rest of the day obsessively trying to recall exactly when I had unintentionally exhibited X behavior, and wondering which of his friends had said something or whether it was something coming directly from him.  It hurt.  A lot.  And then I started judging myself for being so hurt.  Why should I care if I did one small thing that someone didn't like, whoever that person might be?  Am I really that insecure?  Or would it make me hard-headed and unfeeling if I didn't care?  Maybe I'm right to be worked up!  Or maybe I'm just being pathetic and spineless!  But which one is it?

Before I had a chance to recover from this incident and get my head screwed back on correctly, I received another blow.  This time about my upbringing.  Few people are aware of how sensitive I am to being seen as "judgmental."  Particularly in high school, I received a lot of criticism within my closest circle of friends for being a conservative, Christian, upper-middle-class, white girl.  Because if you're all of those things, then you must be judging everyone else who isn't.

…except not.  Unfortunately, some of my friends couldn't seem to differentiate between my having security in my own values and my looking down on people with ones that differed.  Just to clarify, I would never look down on someone purely because our opinions differed.

By the end of high school I was terrified of talking politics or economics or religion with anyone because it was a guaranteed way to end up being put on the defense.  My beliefs were not the popular, stylish ones, and even though they have evolved over the years, I still wouldn't exactly call them mainstream.  And one gets tired of having to say, "No, I don't think you're wrong, I just prefer this thought process personally!  Aren't I allowed that?" over and over again, practically in five different languages.

College wasn't much better.  Not helped by the fact that I dated—however briefly—a raging atheist who hated all Christians (please don't ask me to explain why he was interested in me, a girl who goes to Church most Sundays because I don't know either).  I loved talking books with him, but as soon as the topic rolled around to religion and "The Church" [said with utmost disdain and bitterness, please], I did my best to either change the subject or flee, whichever was easiest at the time.

I am tired of being accused of being some sort of spoiled little Princess who dismisses others' opinions when, in fact, my own opinions are the ones being dismissed.  I am tired of having it cast up to me that I grew up in a well-off family like it's a sin, as if that is something that prevents me from being a good person.  Just because I was blessed enough to grow up privileged does not mean I am blind to the turbulence found elsewhere.  I will not be sorry that I have been fortunate.  I refuse to regret that.  And do not be so foolish as to think that living in suburbia means that I have lived a charmed life.  No one's life is perfect.

So when someone recently made this assertion, however unintentionally, I suddenly saw myself at 17, learning second-hand that my best friend had taken up smoking, lost her virginity to her P.O.S. boyfriend, and become bulimic in one semester and I hadn't known a thing about it.  She hadn't told me because even though I was supposedly her closest friend, for some reason she didn't trust me.  Apparently she'd thought that rather than trying to help her, I would simply stop being her friend.  I was stripped of my power as a friend to care for someone I loved by ignorance.  She assumed that I would judge her and abandon her.  I have hated myself every day since that moment for not realizing on my own what was going on with her, for not seeing that things were so much worse than I realized.  I have questioned constantly what it was I did or said to make her believe that I would turn my back on someone I loved.

Back in the present, the accusation of privilege left me feeling shaky, unsure of my footing in life.  Because how, after 24 years, is that still all I am to the world?  After all I have done and accomplished, how does it still come down to the fact that I grew up in a certain neighborhood?  Is that really who I will be all my life?  The subject of a Hall & Oates song?

I have defended myself and my choices to everyone from strangers to friends to family for all my life and I am tired of it.  I want to stop.  I want to say that I'm going to quit trying to justify myself, but how do you break a habit you were born into?  I have existed in a constant mode of fight-or-flight for as long as I can remember and suddenly I find myself wondering whether this actually makes me insecure.  I have always assumed that holding my ground is what makes me strong, but maybe that's a lie I tell myself to get to sleep at night.  Is my need to defend myself a result of my own lack of character, some pathetic need for approval?  Is the problem really somewhere inside me?  I don't know.  All I know is I keep running away, but I guess it's true that no matter how far away you go, there are some things you can't outrun.

1 A well-meaning bartender recently referred to me as a "Space Waitress," but most days of the week I still maintain that my primary function as a Flight Attendant is, in fact, safety.

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