Saturday, June 28, 2003

Painful Lesson

John* has worked in the same store in town for as long as I can remember. His father George owned and ran the store, and took John on as his partner before I was born. He's been a fixture in town and in my life for so long, that John told me he actually remembers seeing my Dad change my diaper on top of his car one day, in typical fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and get it done Dad fashion. Since I've known him forever, and especially since our Dads knew each other and were all pretty friendly, he's got a special place in my heart.

Having said that, I know that he's got a special place in the heart of the people in town, too, because they all love to make fun of him behind his back. John's a little bit quirky, specifically in the area of vocal tics and personal hygiene. Okay, I'm being kind here. He's got a couple of phrases that he uses over and over, sort of like, "That's the ticket!", which you can insert into any conversation a number of times, and which he does, to the point of absurdity. Everyone has apparently picked up on this, and on an average week, you will hear at least one person use on of his pat phrases, and it's obvious that it's an attempt to poke fun at John. I have to add here that not all of this is done cruelly - some people seem to think that it's just a funny little quirk, and the mocking is done almost affectionately, but others are definitely very cruel about it, especially when they delve into the area of his less-than-ideal personal grooming habits.

I am ashamed to admit that with certain friends and co-workers, I have joined in laughing about some comments about John, particularly when the subject was the phrases he uses over and over, but sometimes also when the comments were not very nice, but concerned things that just seem particularly absurd. For example, the question of why he will not go to a dentist, despite the really VERY obvious need, and the clear lack of financial woes keeping him from visiting the dentist chair, has come up frequently among people I know. It's gotten to the point where it's the first thing you notice about him, and even a casual observer would say, "Damn, boy, go to a dentist already!", especially since he works in a store and has constant contact with the public.

I've sometimes chided myself after having one of these gossipy moments, thinking, "John is one of your oldest acquaintances, and how would he feel if he heard you saying that?" I immediately vow not to join into such conversations again, but always seem to revert back to smiling or laughing along. Oh, what's a harmless little joking around?

This morning, two of my co-workers were ripping people up and down in my presence, one co-worker with whom I have a pretty cordial relationship, Friendly Clueless Guy, and another, the Cruel One, with whom things have always been rocky, because he's got a cruel sense of humor. Alongside the Cruel One sat his friend, Snide, who used to work with us, and who had stopped by to visit. I was disappointed by how cruel they were being about the people they were talking about, all of whom were known to me, and in the course of things, they took a turn mocking John's dental problems. I asked them, in all seriousness, if they thought it had gotten worse, or was it just me? The cruel one said something typically scathing about John, and I admit that it was humorous in the context, and I laughed.

They moved onto other victims, and I had the feeling that the Cruel One was kind of showing off in front of his friend Snide a bit. As they continued, one comment seemed particularly rude, and I kind of groaned, as if to say, "Oh, that was harsh." At that point, the Cruel One turned to me and said, "Just wait until =you= leave the room," and my so-called friend Clueless Guy laughed and said, "Yeah - no one is safe."

It hit me like a slap across the face, and I quickly made an excuse to get out of the room before they saw me get upset. How could I be so dumb? Of COURSE they say cruel things about everyone else, so why should I escape their scathing scrutiny? And, with the lovely low self-esteem issues raging through my veins, I immediately began imagining the very things that they would be attacking me for the second I was out of ear shot. The blood was pumping in my ears, I was crying so hard, and I was overcome by such a feeling of shame. Shame at the things they were saying, shame that I had trusted the Friendly Clueless Guy with any personal information that he could use against me in these slamming sessions, and mostly ashamed that I had ever participated in such talk about others. And shock, that even though I know the Cruel One is such a neurotic bundle of personal issues and cruelty towards others, he could say such a mean thing TO MY FACE. How many people would say to your face that they were about to rip you up the second you left the room? And not mean it as a joke?

Intellectually, I know that this is his problem, and Friendly Clueless Guy and Snide are just spineless joiners-in. I shouldn't worry about what they think of me, since their opinion of people is low overall. Emotionally, I am still recovering from the body blow of meanness, but moreso, from the realization that I have been a spineless joiner-in as well, and that passive acceptance of cruel gossip is just as bad as being the one to start it - because either role is equally painful to the subject of the gossip. And in order to be able to continue to look John in the face, and to be able to respect myself just the teensiest bit more, I have to nip this nasty habit in the bud.

*Names and certain details have been changed to protect the maligned.

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