For a while in my childhood I was shy and bound up by a fear of rejection. I was the kid who got teased in second grade. Out of fear of being picked on I learned how to conform exactly -- not to be the first kid to laugh at a joke and not to be the last one laughing when others stopped. How to bite my tongue, where to stand, how to make eye contact and when to avoid it. I remember the relief I'd feel when it was someone else picked on, not me. When I started middle school I shed my shyness consciously, as an experiment, and miraculously it worked. I gained courage after that in school, coming into my own as an extrovert, at least during the school year.
In the summertime, though, I was surrounded by a different social crowd. I spent my days at sailing lessons. The kids around me went to private schools and knew each other from tennis lessons. Fashions were slightly different than at my school. I rode my bike or got picked up by my mom in a rusting Ford Escort; they were collected in Mercedes and Peugeot wagons. Again I had to study the social norms and find ways not to stand out. There were a couple of summers where I was teased. I shrunk into myself and tried not to do anything that would make me vulnerable. Other summers I had friends but I didn't trust that they were permanent. I always felt like I could screw something up. I bit my tongue.
There's a moment etched into my memory. It's a snapshot of a very ordinary few seconds, but somehow instead of disappearing I can see the scene still.
I was maybe 12 or 13 years old. It was summer and my yacht club sailing team was in Marblehead to race against the Pleon Yacht Club sailing team. I was walking with a couple of kids from my club and one of our sailing instructors. Her name was Polly. She was a few years older than me and she had this easy, friendly personality. Everyone liked her. She fit in naturally, with tousled brown sun-streaked hair, her navy blue polo shirt, her tan legs, her dirty Tretorn sneakers. I knew she didn't screen the comments she was going to make in her head before saying them out loud, weighing the words first, wondering how they would be received. I tried to imagine what that must feel like. It was inconceivable to me. We were walking along the ramp towards the dock and two kids from the other sailing team were pulling a boat on a dolly up the ramp. It was heavy; they were straining. As we walked by them Polly called out to them in a friendly, teasing way, "Put some back into it, guys! Heave-ho!" She came up behind the boat and pushed on the stern, helping them along for a few feet. They looked over at her and responded with a laugh. We walked on. It was hardly a moment worth remembering. But somehow the image of that moment got filed in my head.
I remember the moment because at that age what she did so casually looked impossible to me. I didn't know how to tease anyone with a friendly spirit. I didn't know how to talk to strangers. I didn't know how to make a connection with someone in a way that acknowledged what they were facing, made light of it, and encouraged them at the same time. I felt too stingy and impoverished about my own social place to offer casual warmth to anyone else. I had tried to tease people but in my awkward pre-teen insecurity had mistaken sarcasm and insults for teasing. I was too afraid that I'd be rejected to reach out to anyone. I could see, though, that Polly wasn't being brave. She didn't perceive any risk in looking to make a small friendly connection. She didn't carry around any hurt or fear. She was completely unguarded, spontaneous, generous. I could imagine, just barely, getting brave enough to study Polly's actions and ape them for a deliberate effect -- to fake being friendly and confident. I couldn't imagine getting to a place where it wouldn't require courage or careful planning. That's why I remember those friendly words on the ramp -- to me they represented an unattainable sense of social self-confidence, ease, trust, spontaneity.
And yet I've become her, somehow, over the years. I talk to
strangers, without thinking about it. I reach out to people and expect
to be liked back. I smile, I tease, I find something shared and
special and lighthearted to mention. I say what comes to mind without
screening it first. I tell people what I like about them. I mean it.
And it's really easy. It's not that I'm being brave, I'm just doing
I don't know when this happened, or how. It's been gradual, years in the making. But in the last 18 months I've noticed that I'm blessed this way, more than almost anyone I know. I make friends. I make friends in real life -- at the grocery store or in the courtroom or in the elevator or on a boat or at a party. I make friends on the internet, and at conferences. I've made friends through this blog. I am no longer afraid of being rejected or cast out for being myself. This success can't be an accident or a coincidence, because it just happens all the time. My whole worldview has shifted. The world is full of people who want to be liked, and who want to like me. I'm rewarded when I reach out. Even better, I can reach out to people who themselves are afraid of being rejected, and make them feel safe. It's really cool. It makes me feel like I can do anything.
In the fall I sailed in a regatta at Marblehead. I was back on the same ramp, waiting for the tide to get high enough to launch our boat. I stood on our trailer, chatting with the British guys whose boat was ahead of ours in line. Someone called to me from up the hill and I turned my head, and suddenly the way I saw the slope of the ramp, looking up at the hedge and the parking lot, the clubhouse on my right, flashed me back to walking up the ramp with Polly twenty years ago. Life really works out sometimes.