I recently took my son shopping with my mother at the local farmers market. He loves going out with us and “helping” carry bags or pay for food, and he especially loves all the freebies he manages to score. Honestly, I cannot take this child out of the house without someone giving him something. Before leaving the car, I try to impress on him that we are not shopping for toys, or that we won’t be buying candy, and I finally convince him of my cold-hearted stubbornness and determination. Then, we reach the cashier and she hands him a hot wheels car. Or a candy bar. I take him to the farmers market and he magically comes through with a free bag of caramel popcorn, an apple, and a brownie. Pair all this with a grandmother who can’t seem to take him out of the house without buying a toy tractor or stuffed animal, and this kid’s going to have a rude awakening when he stops being so darn cute and actually has to pay for his own stuff.
Anyway, during the winter, several of the farmers move their stalls into the entryway of our local (tiny) mall, where there is a small play area for children with things to climb and jump on. My mom met a friend of hers at the market so I took the friends four-year-old with Liam to the play area while Mom and her friend visited. I supervised while the children climbed and jumped and ran.
There were other children there (it was a busy Saturday morning) but they were all playing nicely and I kept an I on my two charges to make sure things stayed friendly (these two have a history of switching from best friends to mortal enemies). There was one little boy who had been playing some sort of shooting game with a couple other children. He was running around pointing a finger, poking, and saying “bang.” When he saw Liam, he ran up to him and poked him and said “bang, bang!” Liam looked at him and said “No, don’t poke me,” and turned away and continued his own game. This rather inauspicious beginning to their relationship did not stop that little boy from trying to play with Liam, but he just couldn’t seem to see that his efforts were doomed to failure. Liam is actually rather shy and doesn’t warm up to strangers too quickly. And he doesn’t appreciate being poked (does anybody?). He determinedly focused on his own game and was not at all interested in engaging in a poking and shooting match with this new child.
But the little boy just wouldn’t give up. I watched carefully to make sure Liam wasn’t unkind, wasn’t shoving or pushing or speaking harshly, and he wasn’t. He just wasn’t interested. And the little boy kept following him, kept returning and trying to poke and get Liam to play. And Liam would scowl and say “No!” And the little boy would sit down on the ground and cry. It was rather sad and I felt sorry for him, but I couldn’t see a solution. I wasn’t going to force my child to play a game he didn’t want to play, or to play with a stranger in a public place. This little boy wasn’t alone, he had been playing with other children before we came and those children were still ready and willing to play with him. His mother was sitting only a few feet away and tried to encourage him to pick another game or another group of children, but he wouldn’t. It was a bit sad and funny and hopeless.
The little boy’s mother urged him to play with his friends: “There are so many kids to play with, why do you want to play with that one?” In other words, why was he so determined to play with the only other child in the area who didn’t want to play with him? With the only child who had rejected him.
We were only in the play area for about half an hour, and as I called Liam and his friend and put their shoes back on, I found myself thinking of that little boy and his mother’s words. There were so many other children to play with, but he was determined to play with the one who didn’t want to play with him.
How often do we feel like that? We try to reach out to someone, we want to be friends, and we are rejected? Sometimes, politely, sometimes not politely, but rejected. And rejection hurts.
But do we pick ourselves up and say “Oh well, I will find a group or an individual who will love me for who I am, who will accept me and help me to be the best version of myself? I am not dependant on this one person for my happiness”? Sometimes. But usually not, at least not the first few times. Too often, we spend our time chasing love and approval from people who will never give it to us. Or, if we are unlucky enough to succeed, we spend our time trying to keep that approval.
There is always the classic Hollywood example of the popular kids at school, the mean girls or the jocks. As children and teenagers, there are the cool kids who seem to have it all, who seem to be perfect and happy, and if we could just be like them, if they would just accept and like us, our life would be complete! I knew a girl once who would become physically ill sometimes, at the thought of going to school. She was one of those cool kids, but she was constantly afraid of losing that status, of doing or saying something that would cause her to be ejected from the group. She’d gotten in, but it took her a long time to realize that staying in was even harder than getting in, and even longer to understand that neither was worth the effort.
When we grow up, who the cool kids are changes, but it’s still basically the same dynamic. Whether it’s the influential, put together colleagues whose approval we’re chasing, the mom at the playgroup who seems to have it all figured out, or the Facebook friend whose posts seem to indicate that her life is nothing but perfection; they’re all just adult versions of the cool kids. And we spend our time wishing we could be like someone else, comparing and chasing and changing to be what we think they want us to be.
There are people whose approval we should seek. The first person that comes to mind is your boss: if you’re a poor worker, start changing. The second type of person whose approval might do us good is someone who will want us to be better for our own sakes; not better looking, or better dressed, but kinder and stronger, more confident, braver, more compassionate, wiser, healthier, happier. And who will love you and accept you when you can’t love and accept yourself. I was lucky enough to marry someone like that, to be raised by people like that. I want to teach that to the young women I work with, to every shy, timid, uncertain child. There are people who will love you: don’t waste time chasing the ones who don’t.
Be the kind of person more focused on giving than getting, more interested in loving than being loved, who doesn’t need someone else’s love to feel worthwhile, because you love yourself. Someone once told me: be the kind of friend you want to have, and you’ll find yourself attracting those kinds of people.
Love isn’t something you can catch, like a fish or a cold. It’s something that grows organically, naturally. It can be nurtured, but it can’t be won. The real prize is when we look in the mirror and like who we see there. Not the face or the makeup, or the perfectly styled hair, but the person on the inside. That’s where love begins.