What will the neighbors think?  Do you want everyone to talk about you?  What will they say? Too many of us heard at least one of the above statements while growing up.  Some of us may still be living with these fears.  Having other people gossip about us or our families was the kiss of death.  "They" set the rules, and it was important to obey them so "they" didn't think poorly of us.

Who are they?  Where do they live?  How did they get all this power?  My lifelong, very dear friend, Karen, called me up while we were at different colleges 30+ years ago for the sole purpose of disclosing to me what she had just discovered:  she found out who "they" were!  Are you ready for the big reveal?  "They" were Karen's [now deceased] Aunts Millicent and Sylvia.  Now you know, too!  Discussion over.

However, if you're not convinced, keep reading.

Hands down, the best part of aging is caring less and less about what other people think of us.  Comfort and safety trump cool every time.  Middle age and beyond is when we wear those funky hats in the winter because they're oh so warm, when we wear comfortable shoes regardless of what those four women in the city strap onto their feet, and when we admit to listening to Yanni in our cars (ok, maybe that's just me).  Young people have wrinkle-free faces and seemingly endless energy, but I'll take liberation any day.

But do we ever stop caring completely?  Do we ever get to the point when we can honestly say that we are immune to disapproving glances or skeptical facial expressions?  Given that we are social by nature, maybe we will never be 100% free from caring about what other people think of us.  That's OK, but we can get closer and closer as we add to our life experiences.

A recent occurrence in the supermarket check out line made me aware that I'm still shedding the layers of caring about what other people think of me.  The woman in line behind me carefully watched as I took out each item from my shopping cart and placed it on the conveyor belt.  Usually, I would ignore such close surveillance, but my items were a bit odd; high caloric foods for my still healing son who needs to regain the 35 pounds he lost due to illness, and low calorie, low fat, "lite" foods for me to shed the weight I gained from stress eating as I watched my son become skeletal (the irony is obvious).  Other than a few non-edible purchases, all the items in my cart fit into either the high caloric or lite categories.  There I was, buying diet shakes AND Gouda cheese.  Fat free yogurt AND chips.

I toyed with the idea of explaining to this woman, a complete stranger, that the lighter fare was mine and the remainder was for my son.  Because I didn't want to go through the story of my son's illness, I spent another 30 seconds thinking about how to shorten my story.  And then it hit me:  why did I care what this woman thought of me or my groceries?  At that moment, I knew the lesson for me wasn't how to crop my story, but that I felt I needed a story at all.

Perhaps we never reach the 100% mark in not caring about what other people think of us, or maybe our percentage fluctuates over time.  I wasn't feeling or looking my best at the supermarket--old sweat pants, no makeup, crummy hair day. As I walked into the supermarket, I crossed my fingers that I wouldn't bump into anyone I knew.  I succeeded in my covert shopping until I reached the check out line, when my cover was blown and my insecurity button was pushed.

It is never the fault of another person or event when we feel the need to blurt out our life story or explain ourselves.  Sure, there are judgmental people who are unpleasant to be around, but they can't make us feel anything we're not already feeling.  To blame people or events for our need to explain ourselves misses the wonderful opportunity for self examination and growth.

When do you feel uncomfortably conspicuous?  Are there certain people around whom you feel the need to unnecessarily explain yourself?  When do you care most about other people's opinions of you?  Answer these questions honestly and you'll have peeled back another few layers toward your own liberation.

By the way, I never did explain my odd cart of groceries, but I'm sure glad I felt the need.  I learned a bit more about myself, peeling away yet another layer on my own march to freedom.  Maybe I'll never get to 100%, but I'm a heck of a lot closer than I was just a few days ago.  Thank goodness for Aunts Millicent and Sylvia, and to all the other "theys" out there.


Personal Politics