I was floored. “Why in the world would anyone feel compelled to send an insulting e-mail like that?” I had just seen a disgusted tweet from Ellen DeGeneres about Wisconsin TV anchor Jennifer Livingston’s receiving an insulting e-mail from a man named Kenneth Krause about her weight. Here is what the e-mail said:
“Hi Jennifer. It’s unusual that I see your morning show, but I did for a short time today. I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn’t improved for many years. Surely you don’t consider yourself a suitable example for this community’s young people, girls in particular. Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain. I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.”
Livingston gave an on-air response to Krause followed by countless national interviews and a guest spot on Ellen. “I don’t take a lot of crap from people,” she said. She recalled e-mailing back and forth with Krause a few times. But, Livingston said, Krause would not back down. “He kept saying I was a poor role model.” Ultimately Krause apologized.
I was intrigued by Livingston’s very public response to Krause’s e-mail. There was no question she had already learned not to hide, but to flaunt. Yet later that day I pondered something else about the scenario. What makes someone like Krause feel the need to speak his mind, regardless of the feelings of the recipient? Is it ever useful? More importantly—should it matter to us?
“Meg, have you ever considered the fact that people might think twice about letting you drive their children—to and from a play date for example? It’s not that I know anyone that thinks this, but perhaps some do.” That comment, although not intentionally cruel, sent me reeling into the biggest pity party I had experienced in years. I cried for hours to my husband John that night, not knowing how any person could want to say something so hurtful.
Yes, I am fully aware that people might encounter me and find themselves curious about what I might be able to do or not. I suppose one could wonder how well I manipulate a steering wheel, etc. However, until that very moment, it never occurred to me that anyone might pause before trusting me with their children because of my physical differences. The thought threw me into an emotional tailspin.
The comment actually came from an acquaintance, who perhaps felt close enough to me that she could spill whatever flavored bean she felt like tossing in my direction. Bulls-eye. All of a sudden my rosy world became a dark shade of grey. This same person happens to be particularly unfiltered on occasion, even with the best of intentions. I let her know how deeply her suggestion had stung me and she sincerely apologized for upsetting me. I appreciated her effort, and knew that at the end of the day, she was just being honest. But she is an exception—at least in her willingness to share her every thought in person. In fact, I think most people hold their judgments closely and don’t let you in on their “thought bubbles.” Only in anonymity, or at least when secure behind a screen, do people drop their pretenses. How many times do we read tweets that we know the writer would not dare to express face to face?
Social media has become a sort of technological cloak, where others suddenly feel comfortable hurling whatever they are thinking about us. The problem is, there are no rules, not even an invisible line drawn, when someone has gone too far in their comments. The only guide is when the receiver can’t take it anymore and starts denouncing critics as “bullies”. But that really only attaches a label without signaling a way to rise above the message. In my first example, Livingston said the email to her from Krause was bullying. In an interview, she said, “Whoa buddy, this is far beyond what is OK to write to somebody in an email, even somebody who is in the public like me.” Whether Livingston was actually bullied or not is actually a matter of contention, but is also beside the point. I still think her responding to Krause publically was fantastic.
Livingston added that, “We need to teach our kids how to be kind, not critical, and we need to do that by example.” Although I agree with her, I think our teachings need to go one step further. To me, the reality is that people we encounter are going to say things about us that can sting; some will be strangers, some may be acquaintances, and still others friends. Some will say things to be mean, some to bully, some purely unintentionally hurtful, and some deliberately jarring. Whatever the purpose, whatever the reason, I always like to think that when people speak their mind, I may not like what they have to say, but that doesn’t mean I have to absorb it either.
But that sounds preachy. And the reality is, I can’t always follow my own advice, at least not initially. Let’s face it, I was a total mess when I was suddenly led to think that other parents might be afraid to let me care for their kids. But beyond ourselves, how do we really teach our kids to not care what people think, especially when they are living in a cyberworld filled with people tossing rude and thoughtless judgments at anything that moves? Here is how I do it. The only way I was able to move past the (unwelcome) opinion was to ask myself, “Do I actually agree with her comment?” In some respects, it is as simple as that. And so I considered my driving record, which is actually impeccable and in fact even better than my ten-fingered husband. It was not enough, though, to move through the comment, I needed to move past it. I concluded that even if anyone ever was concerned about my driving their children, they were in fact wrong, and that was their problem, not mine. And so, as people thrust their opinions on us, either directly or otherwise, regardless of the intention, the only way to handle the message is to emphatically believe the other person is mistaken. Once you embrace that, then who cares what they think anyway?
After all, flaunting is all about being proud of who you are, no matter the critic.