Some years back (I won’t say exactly when, in order to protect the innocent — chiefly myself), I found myself in a new and long-term social situation. In these circles, there was one particular woman who I could tell didn’t like me, right from the get-go. I was never sure exactly why, but the fact remained. Even the smallest interactions seemed to go awry, assuming she didn’t just walk the other way upon the sight of me.
One particular late fall day, I turned a corner and there she was. Up close and personal. Eye to eye. She couldn’t run without throwing all decorum to the wind.
In that first two seconds, you could almost hear the air crackle. She arched her eyebrows and lowered her lids. I had to think fast. I was much younger then. But even so, I was a risk taker when it came to being friendly. The first thing I noticed was her dress — a one-piece number with large, colored leaves on it. That seemed grounds for a pleasant, neutral comment. So I just opened my mouth and had out with the first thing that came to my mind:
“Hi there. Well. It looks like you’re not going to be able to wear that dress much longer.”
She instantly looked as if someone had yanked her snood tight without warning. I was at a loss! What had I said? She most definitely began to have door-knob face. Then, the realization dawned on me.
She was not a small woman.
“No, no!” I sputtered. “I didn’t mean … I just meant that … well, the print …”
She inhaled sharply, turning shades of red and looking as if she might actually strike me. Then she just shook her head, deflated in a sigh, and walked off in the other direction with a “well-I-never” air about her.
I had only meant that fall was coming to an end and the dress was seasonal, so she should enjoy the few remaining weeks of wearing it before it had to be retired to the closet until next fall.
Alas — a stellar motive was foiled by the wrong word choice. “The best laid plans of mice and men” and all that. Only, she thought I was a rat.
I’m happy to tell you that such foibles happen much less frequently these days, though I have far more impromptu, risky and otherwise potentially challenging interactions with people now than ever before. Did I learn my lesson?
No, not really.
Or, rather, I’ve learned many lessons. And I continue to learn.
As a pianist and piano teacher, I can tell you that there is no short and easy road to get from primer level — plunking away with your right hand in the five-finger C position — to tearing up the keys with Tchaikovsy. It takes a lot of intentional hard work and commitment. The same is true of being able to interact comfortably and naturally with others. It takes practice.
Back in the day, roller skates were a contraption that consisted of two metal pieces that slid closer or further apart along a central runner. The front part, which reminded me of a knight’s helmet on my pair, would fit over whatever regular shoes you had on. The back part was a simple cusp that slid up against the heel of the shoe. Once the adjustable gadget was in place, you used a small turnkey on the bottom, twisting it tight up around a bolt that protruded through a groove in the runner. Some varieties had a leather strap that would further secure around your ankle. Mine did not.
My mother recalls one day when I was only three or four. I’d donned my skates and was making an attempt at propelling myself around the concrete floor of our basement.
I must have then emitted some sort of shriek, because my mother came running down the wooden steps to see what sort of trouble I’d gotten myself into. She recounts that, as she came to my aid, I looked up at her, sniffling, and sagely said, “I fell. But it’s OK, because you have to fall to learn.”
Gee, wasn’t I the cutest thing.
I guess I realized even then that, as with piano, making mistakes is part of the process.
Why is it, then, that we expect novel social interactions, compliment giving, or other attempts at genuine kindness to be a hit every time? It takes a lot of missing in order to get to the home runs (or so I’m told).
Rather than shy away from taking risks with people for fear of failure, what if we instead expected a certain amount of failure? Told ourselves that it was a necessary part of the process? And then gave ourselves a break?
Another proverb comes to mind:
If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.
Don’t let mistakes hold you back from experiencing the joy of deeper interactions with others.
Don’t take yourself so seriously.
Practice. Learn. Grow.
Now get back in the game!