That was a very important date for me.
I often say that I don’t care what other people think, but that’s not entirely accurate. It would be more accurate to say that I can’t care what other people think. Many people have remarked on the confidence I display in my talk at UofT. Let me clue you into a little secret: I cheat.
I’m quite comfortable with public speaking because the thought of “dozens of eyes judging me” holds zero emotional significance for me. When I’m up in front of a crowd, my only concern is that I’ll miss an important point or that my laptop will crap out and the presentation won’t be as persuasive as it could have been. It’s why book marketing and self-promotion are so difficult for me. I honestly feel no motivation whatsoever to gain the approval of others.
I want to be clear on this; I’m not saying that I feel nothing for other people. When I see someone in pain, it has a profound emotional effect on me. Sometimes I find myself crying at the thought of someone else’s pain. When I see someone mistreating another human being, it flares a bright flame of anger in me. When I learn that someone’s ordeal is over – whatever that ordeal may be – I feel a deep sense of relief. The one thing I cannot feel is a desire to gain the approval of other people.
It wasn’t always that way.
Back in elementary school, I used to want the acceptance of my peers. I used to obsess over every single social interaction, petrified that anything I said or did would make the bullying worse. Because pretty much everything I said and did made the bullying worse. Socialization is a learned process. We learn the rules by the way our peers respond to our actions. But when the response is the same no matter what you do, when it’s always negative, the necessary feedback isn’t there.
By the time I was fifteen, the stress and constant anxiety of second-guessing my every decision was just too exhausting. It wasn’t something that happened all at once, but over the course of a few months, I just stopped caring. May 12, 1998 was the day I realized that I just didn’t care anymore. It was actually a relief. The bullying didn’t stop, of course – it never stops if you’re at the bottom of the social ladder – but I came to realize that the bullying wasn’t something I could control. No amount of appeasement was going to make the other kids stop picking on me; I knew because I had been trying for years to appease them.
So I stopped trying.
Instead of hiding my extensive vocabulary, I used “big words” whenever I bloody well felt like it, and if someone was stupid enough to comment, I made sure he felt like an idiot for not understanding something as simple as “parallax” or “equivocation.” Instead of fretting over whether or not my clothes would produce a new round of insults, I decided to wear whatever I liked. Anyone who wanted to comment could go fuck himself. I found power in one simple revelation. “They’re going to come after me no matter what I do; so I may as well do whatever I want.”
And what I wanted to do was live a moral life. I wanted to help other students who found themselves in similar situations, and I did. I became a kind of de facto therapist for half the school. I knitted together groups of kids who would have never known each other but for me. And I treated everyone from the most popular cheerleader to the shyest nerdy ninth-grader as an equal. My refusal to conform was more than just an act of defiance; it was a moral stance. “You have no right to judge me.”
So here’s to May 12, 1998.
Today, I celebrate the anniversary of one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned.
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