I don’t have what I consider to be thick skin or thin skin. I like to think I have all-weather skin. Metaphorically, it can adapt to the environment without too much damage from the sun, the wind, or the elements.
That being said, I’ve been struggling with labels placed on me and my contemporaries. I have been spending time analyzing words, their power, and what I attribute to them. It has given me a new perspective.
I look at words a lot like I look at rain. Rain is neither good nor bad, it’s just rain. It can wash away towns, and it can nourish plants and animals. We all have experiences with rain. It has been known to ruin weddings, picnics, outdoor parties, cause flooding, break dams, erode valuable soil, and destroy homes.
Rain also enables us to grow crops, washes away pollution, makes plants lush, with the added bonus of smelling refreshing. It restores our fresh drinking water, replenishes the oceans, and is a necessary energy source.
Like rain, are words good or bad? OR does it depend on who is using them, how, and in what context? Does the tone of voice in the presentation of words transform them from being neutral to being negative? Are we filtering the words we receive and the words we send out through life experiences, baggage, triggers, and other “stuff”? Are life experiences, baggage, triggers and “stuff” always bad or always good?
It has taken me a lifetime to realize what words mean to me, how I receive them, and how I send them into the world. Do I use them to lift up or to hold down? Do I use them to critique or to criticize? Can my words be friendly AND firm? Have I examined phrases I use to ensure they don’t diminish others?
What perpetuated all of this introspection? A trip to beautiful Costa Rica.
My first destination was the Tabacón hot mineral pool resort outside of the quaint town of La Fortuna. A hot river flows down from the local volcano through the town and into several resorts. There are myriads of pools for swimming and soaking throughout the area.
I arrived at the pools early one morning to soak and swim. I like being an early bird before it gets too crowded.
As a Qigong instructor and practitioner, I do my best to practice daily. More accurately, I NEED to practice daily. I decided since there weren’t many people in the pools that I would get in the usually overcrowded hot waterfall and do some relaxing movements.
I typically practice with my eyes closed. This technique helps me to absorb the movements and allows them to work with me. I was practicing for about 10 minutes when I felt someone looking at me. (I’m sure you know the feeling.) I peeked and saw a man in approximately his late thirties staring and smiling at me from across the pool. At first, I wondered if my swimsuit was falling off or something was hanging out. (Quick check, all was well.) The watchful eyes didn’t prevent me from finishing my practice.
After I finished the last movement I walked to the edge of the pool. He struck up a conversation with me. He said it was obvious I knew what I was doing. (Thank you.) He asked if I was a Tai Chi or yoga teacher. I explained that I was a meditation master and Qigong instructor. He matter-of-factly said to me: “Yeah, I said to myself, Man, that old lady knows exactly what she’s doing.”
I’ll admit I was a bit shocked. Not deer-in-headlights shocked but slightly taken aback. I’ve never considered myself “that old lady,” AND no one has ever said anything like that to me before. I’ve had very interesting things said to me throughout my life, but that isn’t one of them. I didn’t know whether to say “f you” or “thank you.” He kept the conversation going with me—business as usual. I could tell he had no idea what he had just said. To me and my husband, it came across as ageist. To him, it was a compliment. He had no idea that he had succumbed to a point of view and the use of language that instead of nurturing others actually demeans them. The real kicker is that he seemed genuinely surprised that someone over a certain age could move with ease.
My feelings about being “that old lady” are mixed. I take good care of myself. I want to be healthy so I can spend time with our children and grandchildren. I had my son later in life, and I realize I don’t have as much time with my son and grandchildren as my parents and grandparents had with me.
In the long run, was I offended or did I choose to be offended by what this stranger said to me?
Maybe it was his perception of someone with silver hair. I struggled for a few months about letting my hair go silver. I was tired of dying it. It got to the point I had no idea what my natural color was. I went on a long trip, and I didn’t have access to hair color. I told my husband I wanted to see how it would look if I went from dyed blond to silver. He was extremely supportive. It was a pretty easy transition with my hair, but my ego and I had to have a stern conversation. I realized my ego needed to get out of the way so I could have healthy hair. Aside from one very brief misstep, I adore it and get loving support from my family and friends. I have had some sharp criticism from a couple of female friends, but I quickly realized it was about them and not about me.
In regards to being called “that old lady,” what if I take it to mean I’ve acquired wisdom, knowledge, insight, and experience, instead of looking at it as a judgment? I don’t believe silver hair is a benchmark or delineation. I know people in their twenties and thirties with authentic silver hair. Today I saw a woman over fifty driving in her red convertible, sporting a silver mohawk. I couldn’t look away. She was striking, unique, and expressing herself. BRAVA!
Beyond that, I know people in their twenties and thirties who behave like they are crumbling and people fifty and older who are remarkably youthful. To me, youthful is about a positive and enthusiastic outlook on life, not about a time frame.
I used to frequently go to a cinema in California. They called their age fifty-five plus ticket rate the “cheapskate ticket.” The cinema I currently attend calls it the “wisdom ticket.” Do those words really matter in the long run? Regardless of the words used to describe these discounts, I take full advantage of them. Thank you very much. I don’t look at it as being a cheapskate or being wise—I look at is as being prudent with my money!
Let’s learn to shift our judgment on aging and make it an affirmation instead of rejection. Perhaps the way we treat each other and speak to each other will shift and change. Constructive dialogue is crucial between all the generations.
The interesting thing is I didn’t open up a dialogue with my friend at the pool about his use of words. Typically, I like to discuss what I consider to be inappropriate communication. I was feeling good about life, and the direction I’ve been going, and it made me ruminate about myself in a way that wasn’t self-affirming.
Words can harm and words can heal; however, in the long run, they ARE just words. My son’s grandfather has always said: “Deeds speak.” Actions DO speak louder than words. Was it my duty to take action and educate this man? Maybe. Is there a reason I didn’t? Typically, I can tell when engaging on certain levels won’t bring about change. I felt, intuitively, that this person wasn’t ready to hear any of what I had to say.
By no means am I advocating not speaking up, especially if it’s not an isolated incident. If there is no right time to say what you need to say, say something anyway. There’s no time like the present.
What it all comes down to is this: it was all about my perception and reaction to another’s words. All I can be is the best possible version of myself, regardless of what anyone may say or feel.
Yesterday someone commented on how old I look; today someone commented about how young I look. It’s all words. It’s all someone else’s opinion. What matters is what I think about myself, what YOU think about yourself. Know that you are vital, valued and valuable. The contributions we make far outweigh the labels that are placed on us.