A couple of days ago I was reading a blog at heatherbestel.com about women having difficulties accepting compliments. I’m much better at it now but it got me thinking about why, if someone does something really kind and considerate, I burst into tears. Crying isn’t something I like to do, especially publically, so this is really embarrassing for me and probably quite worrying for the giver. Even though we strive to move forward shadows of the past are always there, waiting to take on more substance and make an appearance. Like in any exorcism, in order to dispel them we have to face them, call upon the courage we now possess and force them to flee, but I usually go back for a short visit to where they came from, understand what was happening at that time, and then try move on.
Growing up in the 1950s and 60s praise was never something you received, either at home or at school. In fact, whenever it seemed like you were becoming good or successful at something you were immediately slapped down in case you ‘got above’ yourself. Parents weren’t intentionally being cruel; they thought they were preparing you for a life of disappointment and didn’t want you to get your hopes up or aspire to anything ‘above’ you. It was a time of servants and people knowing their place but it was also a time of the ‘Baby Boomers’ the generation of young people who would kick against the restraints and change the social fabric from sober grey to bright flowers and geometric patterns.
Science was expanding its boundaries and making life easier for people in the home, developing new innovations and inventions in factories, on the roads, rail and in the air. There was also the threat of the nuclear bomb, so life was grabbed at, never knowing when the bomb would fall and wipe out civilization. The pill was invented and for the first time women’s sexuality and sexual desires were considered and studied along with their health. It was an exciting time and I’m proud to have been part of it but there were downsides too. At least for me. Because of emergent feminism and the demand for equality more pressure was put on young women to be part of the ’cause’, thus alienating a lot of the ‘old school’ teachers, men and boys, and the older generation. I had to be twice as good as any boy to get anywhere as did boys who supported the ‘revolution’ and grew their hair. Dope became part of party life and casual sex was rife.
I met the guy who became my husband when I was 17. We were both virgins and our first attempts at copulation were fumbling, amateurish and lacked tenderness or any real understanding of the other’s body. We both felt pressure to ‘perform’ and were afraid to say anything about performance in case the other was offended. It was another area of my life where I felt I’d failed. The only time I received compliments from him was when I looked nice, so I concentrated on that, keeping the home clean and tidy and raising our kids.
When things were going terribly wrong I went to night classes to study ‘A’ levels and in the middle of the course we separated. After our divorce I applied to university where I was accepted and went on to gain an Honours degree in English and History. He rang to congratulate me and, not used to his praise, I joked it off. It was hard for him as well to express his feelings but he forged on and said ‘I always knew you could do it.’ That was the first time in all our courtship, our ten years of marriage and five years of friendship that I knew he had respected me and my intelligence. He didn’t need to say anything, he could have let me sideswipe his compliment, but he didn’t. That’s what made me cry and what still makes me cry, that people will go out of their way to let you know how valued you are, or do something special to make you feel good. They don’t have to, they just do it, and it gets me every time.
At university I was taking a year of philosophy and our lecturer had been a missionary in Mdagascar. He left the church, returned to the UK and took up teaching. By the time he got me in his class he was much older and a functioning alcoholic. I loved him, not in the Biblical sense, but because he opened doors in my mind and pushed me to new ways of thinking, of things I’d never heard of or considered before. I remember our group going to the pub with him one night and he asked me what I wanted from life. I answered, ‘To be happy’ and he derided me for having such ‘trite aspirations’. That stung.
Later, before we graduated, he called me ‘All things to all men’, referring to a quote from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. I thought he was trying to hit on me, being in his cups as he was, but I was thrilled nontheless. What a compliment, to be compared favourably to Cleopatra, one of the most beautiful women in the world! I hung onto that for years and years but lately as I try to unpick my life in order to open it up and welcome in new ways of thinking and loving, I realize it wasn’t a compliment at all. Cleopatra may have been beautiful but she was false, may have embodied men’s desires but betrayed them, may have promised delights of the flesh and other pleasures but at the end of the day she was driven by ambition. Not like me at all, really. But what I think he was meaning was that I was a pleaser, a person who would do anything, change anything about myself, if my lover wanted me to. I was so needy for compliments I never examined his, which if I’d learnt anything from him and his course was what I should have been doing. However, better late than never so they say.
Whether it’s a trite aspiration or not, being happy is still something I strive for. I’ll leave you with the ending of Desiderata, a framed copy of which I got for Xmas from one of my daughters:
In the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.
Found in Old Saint Paul’s Church Baltimore – Dated 1692