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    Three Pairs of Shoes

            One night out, I noticed three women sitting at a table next to me. They all had on great looking shoes. The specificities escape me, but all three pairs were different from each other, and very stylish. I walked over to their table and said, with a smile on my face, “Excuse me. I wanted to tell you ladies that you’ve all got on killer shoes.”
            It was a sincere compliment, with the potential to be an ice breaker. But even if these were three women who were obviously unavailable, I would have said something to them about their shoes. They were flat out cool, the shoes I mean, and I compliment people I don’t know often.
            After the compliment, there was silence. The woman directly across from me looked at me and, after a few seconds, uttered the most sarcastic and insincere “thanks” I had ever heard that hadn’t come from a member of my family. The one to her left just looked at me without saying anything, and the other woman, who’s back was more or less to me, didn’t even bother to turn around. I said “Your welcome” and left.
            There were a few people with me back at my table, and when I returned, they asked me what happened. I told them, we all laughed about it, and went back to watching the Bruins game.
            The internal roadblocks that we construct to do something as simple as an honest compliment to someone we don’t know can be very formidable. Taking the risk to say something genuinely kind and positive to a stranger means pushing past very entrenched, partially unconscious fears of rejection, shame, and judgement, to name a few.
            The receiver of your kindness has their own shit going on, and getting past that to respond with genuine appreciation, say with a sincere “thank you” or a smile, posses its challenges as well. Most of us walk around fairly guarded unless we’re surrounded by people we know. Lowering that guard to allow a compliment in can be tricky. Hearing somebody say “That’s a great color on you!” is one thing. Truly receiving that compliment is another.
            Immediately, we often believe that the person dolling out the compliment has an agenda, so we’re suspicious. We figure they want something from us, so they’re only saying something nice as a means to an end. They don’t really mean it. Many of us have experienced this to be true often enough so that we have reason not to trust kindness from strangers, or sometimes even from people we know. After all, everybody has had experiences where somebody we know, and possibly loved, told us something nice just to get something from us. And that hurts. Sometimes very much and very deeply. Those scars can stay with us our whole lives unless we actively try to heal them.
           My own phobia with compliments hasn’t got to do with thinking that the other person wants something from me, but that they’re fucking with me. That they’re being sarcastic, snickering behind my back, complimenting me on one hand and throwing me under a bus with the other. If I go nuts with this line of mis-reasoning, I imagine that the person’s friends are watching from afar, laughing their ass off while their buddy “compliments” me.
            I know where this comes from and what it’s about. A sarcastic compliment is just a lie. It’s a lie designed to set me up on a precarious pedestal so that I’ll have farther to fall, and thus hurt myself more, when I realize that I’ve been duped. It’s cruel, designed to have a joke at my expense, designed to cause me pain. It happened to me enough as a kid for me to be suspicious of any kind word from anybody. Even today, unless I’m mindful and present, my immediate internal knee jerk to a compliment from a stranger is “They are fucking with me. They are bullshitting me so that they can make me look bad.”
            That’s a very old tape, and one that I’ve worked hard to turn the volume down on. It’s a constant challenge, but it’s getting easier to do the more I learn to love myself and the longer I stay open instead of closed. Today, that old tape still plays immediately, but the volume on my internal stereo for this particular song is much softer than it used to be. I hear other tapes now that are louder. Tapes of gratitude and appreciation. A steely guarded cautious suspicion for the person has been largely replaced by feelings of warmth and connection.
            And if they are fucking with me, which sometimes still happens, I can actually see that much more easily now. We think that hyper-vigilance is our best defense against whatever we’re trying to protect ourselves from, but actually, it’s the worst mindset we can have. Because we’re always assuming it, we’re actually drawing it to us, not repelling it. And because we’re always on the lookout for it, we lose the ability to discern when it’s really happening. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s true. The more open I am, the easier it is to gauge intent.
            So if the intent is to fuck with me, because I’m open to all experience, I can smell that easier. And I can tell if it’s really meant to hurt me, or just good humored ribbing, or simple praise, or anywhere on that continuum. More importantly, because I’m more in touch with how I feel and because I’m happier with who I am, I can choose a response that’s appropriate for me.
            Recently, I was at a Boston Red Sox game, sporting a very blonde quasi-mohawk hairdo, and wearing a tank top and a pair of board shorts. This guy was standing with his girlfriend, and he said to me, completely out of the blue, “Hey, where’s your surfboard?”. Because I’m so much more in touch with the real me these days, I was able to respond, quickly and without much thought, in a way that reflected more of who I am. I’m more joyful, much less angry. I’m more loving, and not so guarded. I’m more out there, willing to take more risks. I’m more conscious and more heart centered. I’m more myself. So my response matched where I was at, not where he was coming from.
            “My surfboard is at home. Where’s yours?” I said. He responded “I don’t have one.” So I looked at him up and down quickly and said “Yeah. I can tell.” We both laughed. For a brief moment, me and this other guy connected and shared a moment together.
            I encourage you to get in touch with that place inside you that loves to connect to people. We all have it in there, and it’s more powerful than many of us know. It’s part of our life force that drives us to interact with one another and to love. Just getting in touch with that place and trying to come from there can make simple encounters with everybody and anybody not only pleasurable, but inspiring and life affirming. We can walk away from an interaction feeling more alive and uplifted, even if it’s just for a few minutes. We can build on those and string them together throughout the course of our days and suddenly we’re a little more ourselves and a little more open to connecting to one another. Maybe then life doesn’t seem so hostile. And neither does the person who compliments you on your shoes.

    ©2009 Clint Piatelli. All Rights (and a complimentary amount of Wrongs) Reserved.

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