Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending a contributor dinner hosted by the publisher of Chicken Soup for the Soul. It was an intimate affair, with those feel-good vibes going on the minute you entered the room. We were all strangers, smiling politely at each other as we introduced ourselves and then launched into the social game of twenty questions, searching for what we had in common. It’s always fun to find a match, something shared upon which to base a conversation. And soon, folks were engaged in casual chit chat as the sounds of laughter echoed in the air.
I approached a half -filled table of women and asked if it was “the fun group.” That seemed like a good ice breaker, and they invited me to join them. The empty chair to my right was soon occupied by our hostess, an accomplished woman with an impressive professional resume and a warm smile. She greeted each of us.
When she turned to me, I reached into my purse and pulled out a copy of Ovacoming. We had been asked to bring along a book to swap, and I had placed Angelique’s Storm in the mix, but I also intended to give away the story of my first teal year if an opportunity presented itself. I have enjoyed passing along copies to raise awareness of ovarian cancer. But this was different I was about to hand it to a publishing expert, an accomplished editor, who critiques writing for a living. My heart was thumping loudly in my chest. What would she think?
She politely thanked me and asked about the cover design and unusual title, then commented that she would pass it along to her daughter, a gynecologist, when she had finished reading it. I was thrilled. And I suppose I was nervous, maybe even a little celebrity struck or perhaps my chemo brain was acting up, but I began to talk. All eyes were focused on me as I prattled on about myself, launching into an elaborate story about my cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment. At one point, I even pulled out my phone to show her and the rest of my table mates not one, but three photos of myself. (One with a bald head, I might add.) And there was no wine involved. Not even a sip.
Everyone was kind, of course, and I felt pretty satisfied about the night until I was on my way home and had a not-so-pleasant epiphany. I was guilty of violating every single thing I had been taught as a child about self- promotion in social situations. Growing up, the women in my life had modeled humility for me. They were self-effacing and unpretentious. There was something soothing and gracious about them, which translated into how they made others feel in their presence. They never had the need to prove anything about who they were or what they did, which, in turn, made them seem admirable and likeable. My momma would have never shown strangers a picture of herself sporting a shiny bald head. Never in a million years.
And this got me thinking about society on a larger scale. There has been an evolution in our culture, a huge shift in the way we view ourselves. Current generations were bombarded with messages about how special they are, the Disney themes of self-trust and no limits. At a time when everyone got a trophy, they imagined themselves to be princesses or superheroes, with infinite possibilities. They were indulged and encouraged. My father’s war generation learned the meaning of hard scrabble and practiced modesty. They didn’t sport t-shirts with catchy slogans or attach bumper stickers to their cars or brag about their accomplishments. Life was difficult, but simple. And those in my age group find themselves somewhere in between, trying to decode it all. My grandma would have called me out for “being too big for my britches,” but today, that is viewed as a strength, a sign of confidence. Which do we embrace?
Let’s face it: we are influenced by social media, posting our idealized life in Instagram selfies and Facebook boasts, anxious to rank up the “likes” which somehow make us feel validated. And so, in the confusion of mixed signals, it is easy to step out of pace with what is acceptable and what you believe in your heart to be right. The current societal code of behavior is downright baffling, and I can’t help but wonder if I broke it. Was I boorish or engaging? Insufferable or charming? I guess, it is a matter of perception, mine and theirs. But I suppose that is true of all such situations.
Every experience is destined to teach us something about ourselves and about life if we let it. This was no exception. Each tomorrow gives us an opportunity to do better. I find that comforting. Character, I have learned, is something we build for ourselves, brick by brick, day by day, regardless of what everybody else is doing. I am, most certainly, still a work in progress. And if you invite me to dinner, I promise not to talk too much about myself or show you any pictures. You have my word on it.
As I finished writing this, I proofread it, and then second-guessed every word. Ironically, there is a thin line between being informative and indulgent when you write a blog that it so personal in nature. I figured I would check my email and then, tackle a revision. And there, in my inbox, was a message from someone who had been at the table that night. It was a lovely note, filled with words of affirmation and encouragement. She ended it with this: “never stop telling your story because you have no idea whose heart you may have touched.” I took a deep breath. Maybe I hadn’t been so insufferable after all. And then, I exhaled. Kindness often arrives when you need it the most. Each act is a small miracle and a welcomed gift. And perhaps that is the greatest lesson of all.