When I was 10 or 11, I spent most of my summer days at my aunt’s house with my cousins Russ and Megan. My Aunt Linda had an infectiously joyous outlook on life. She was the type of person who could be tough with you and it only made you want to be her friend even more. Aunt Linda could hang for sure.
My aunt’s house was a summer dreamland. They had a pool, a trampoline, and we could roam the small town they lived in – a child’s dream come true. Megan and I would spend our days running around town with friends or swimming in the pool. I remember after one such day of gallivanting around town and swimming in the pool Megan’s older brother Russ was teasing us, as per usual, and Megan, unusually, didn’t have a witty comeback and broke down. She stormed off crying into the house.
I remember this day so clearly. It was a warm Midwest summer day. The sun was twinkling in the sky as the shade from the trees danced across my legs. I could smell the rubber trampoline that conformed to the weight of my little body and the warm sunscreen being absorbed into my arms. I remember watching the scene as if I were an observer at a theater – not quite a part but not fully excluded.
Megan’s face was hot with tears as she ran inside. Russ ran off to avoid Linda’s wrath, assuming Megan would tell on him – she did. I sat next to Linda on the trampoline, the breeze pushing through her short auburn hair. Without skipping a beat, my aunt said, “If you can’t play with the big dogs, don’t roam with the big dogs.”
I looked at her with disbelief.
Did she just say that? Did my aunt just have the coolest, most easygoing response to a tussle her children just had? Yes, yes she did! But young, innocent me didn’t get that “What do you mean?” I remember asking her, squinting into the sun as I looked into her face. She looked down at me with that familiar, loving look of playfulness, “If you can’t take what people say, then you can’t hang out with them. Don’t let people get to you.”
In this snippet of a memory of my aunt, I learned so much about life. I can’t let people get to me (even though I still do – I’m high-strung that way). This lesson came to mind recently at my place of work. I have a coworker who is a few years younger than me in a leadership position over his head. He is exclusive and kind of a bully (in my humble opinion). He is quick to point out people’s faults and make a joke of them.
I am a perfectionist and I get really embarrassed when my mistakes are pointed out in front of everyone. One day he mocked a misspelling I had made in front of the leadership team and I was embarrassed and angry. I wanted to yell, or, worse, completely tear him apart with my words. But, then, I remembered the lesson my aunt taught me. People can be cruel and there is nothing that I can do about that. And, somewhat worse, those cruel people aren’t going away.
I have to learn to be around them and still love them as humans. It hurts to get embarrassed and to be humiliated in front of peers, but ruining things for someone else is not the correct response for me. If I can rise above being embarrassed by bullies and not let their words get to me, I can survive, nay, thrive in any environment.
Bullies and cruel people have a story of their own, but remembering this lesson didn’t make me any less angry or less embarrassed. I still get hot with embarrassment when my co-worker makes fun of my mistakes, but with this lesson in mind, I try to be gracious with my retort.
Most importantly, everyone is different and everyone has a story they are living. If I can’t hang and listen and accept people for who they are, then I can’t live life to the fullest. In the words of my aunt, “If you can’t play with the big dogs, don’t roam with the big dogs.”