“When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.”
― Winston Churchill
A few years back I wrote a blog about the kind words of strangers and acquaintances and how those words often transform a dismal day or an entire perspective into something beautiful. (It’s still one of my favorite posts; you can read it here.) The boss praises our efforts, a friend admires our new shirt or haircut, a stranger compliments our child’s performance–and suddenly we smile a little brighter, walk a little taller, and feel a little better about ourselves and our world. You know what I’m talking about (or, at least, I hope you do).
I have been blessed by the kind words of others–most recently in response to my writing, photography, and cycling endeavors–and every cherished tidbit of praise has encouraged me to continue sharing my joy. With every received compliment, the sun shines on my shoulders, daisies burst into bloom at my feet, and chocolate-covered caramels melt in my mouth. You get the idea.
And then along comes a jerk who pees on my rainbow.
Each year our little lake community hosts a fantastic Fourth of July fireworks celebration over the water, and for the past two years I’ve been fortunate to watch and photograph those fireworks from a friend’s deck overlooking the lake. Fireworks photography is challenging, especially for someone who prefers to shoot the slowly shifting colors of a sunset or the gentle dance of wildflowers in the morning breeze. I still have a lot to learn, but after much research and some good advice from one of my photographer sons, I’ve been fairly satisfied with my early attempts. When I shared this year’s photos on Facebook, I received overwhelming support–numerous shares, likes and positive feedback, including a comment from a former student who had watched the fireworks display and remarked on one of my pictures that it looked just as cool as she remembered.
There is perhaps no greater compliment for an aspiring photographer than knowing a photo she has created through the combined forces of her camera and her own artistic vision not only appeals to so many but also reinforces what they have seen with their own eyes. I was happy–until I came across a very unflattering comment from a stranger.
The local marina had shared my photos on its Facebook page, and on that page a man commented that he had been at the fireworks display and my pictures didn’t look anything like what he saw–and that my pictures looked “fake.” I was crushed, but I was also angry. I felt this man was not just criticizing my photos but also attacking ME and my integrity. Fake? I swallowed my anger and politely replied to his comment, trying to explain lighting and exposure and perspective, but he fired back that it must have taken me “10 years to edit them to look like that.” I knew I had spent mere minutes editing the entire lot of them, but I exited the conversation, already realizing my efforts to explain would be futile. Good or bad, most people see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe.
His words continued to sting, though. At first I tried convincing myself that his comments said much more about him than they did about me or my abilities. What kind of person feels the need to publicly criticize the creative efforts of a stranger? My mother (and probably yours, too) frequently advised that “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Did his mother forget to pound that lesson into his brain? (I sure wanted to pick up a sledgehammer and do a little overdue pounding for her.) I even told myself that maybe I should consider it a compliment that someone thought my photos were too good to be “real.” After all, I’ve worked hard to improve my photography skills–but his comments made me question even my meager abilities and wonder if my efforts would ever be good enough.
A month later I have finally accepted that even if his criticism did say something about him, my reaction to his words–especially my inability to just let them go–also says a lot about me.
I’m not very good at following my own advice. When I was a junior high principal, one of the most frequent issues I dealt with was one student’s anger or hurt feelings over another student’s words or actions. Oftentimes, students seeking counsel in my office were either crying inconsolably or threatening to do immediate and major bodily harm to an offending party–and sometimes (depending on the students involved) I could talk these students out of their pain and anger by reminding them they were giving away their power. I would explain that by allowing another student to goad them into tears or actions they would regret, they were giving the other student power over them–and that sometimes the best thing to do was to rise above the situation and ignore the offense so that the other student didn’t have the satisfaction of knowing that what he said or did mattered. I don’t know how good the advice was for junior high students (sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t), but it’s advice I should be following myself. I got my feelings hurt by a stranger who probably knows very little about photography or the creative process, and I gave away my power to this person who didn’t deserve it. I should have known better.
And what about you? How many times have you given away your power by allowing someone else to control your thoughts and feelings? Angry spouses, annoying colleagues, incompetent bosses, disgruntled customers, sullen strangers–all have the power to send our spirits plummeting (but only because we let them).
I need to get tougher. After this stranger’s criticism, I fell into a creative slump. I didn’t feel like writing, and when I tried, every sentence I strung together just sounded stupid. For weeks I seldom picked up my camera–and even though I shared a few photos, I wasn’t happy with any of them. Not only had I allowed this guy’s negativity to have power over my feelings, but I had also let him creep into my psyche and steal my joy. Shame on me. Why did I allow his one negative comment to ring louder in my head than all the positive comments combined?
When I share my creative endeavors with my little portion of the world, I’m choosing to shed my protective layers and engaging in a form of public nudity. I’ll never be flashing my belly flab (insert collective sigh of relief), but with every published sentence and every shared photograph, I’m exposing even more. And it’s scary. My heart, my soul, my spirit–all are laid bare before readers and viewers, and if I want to continue to receive the constructive criticism I need and the encouraging praise I crave (yeah, I admit it), then I need to be willing to accept the occasional negative feedback I dread. It may take more bravery than I have (and certainly more bravery than I think I have), but that’s the necessary price for disclosure.
And isn’t that the risk we all take when we present our real, imperfect selves to the rest of humankind? We may not all write stories, take photos, paint pictures, create music–but we do all share tidbits of our selves with the world, and whether we do so courageously or timidly, we hope the world will respond to our efforts with kindness.
I am my own worst enemy. And I’m willing to bet that you are, too. Yes, we occasionally let strangers hurt us. More often, its close friends and family who do the damage. The people who love us the most are also the ones privy to our greatest vulnerabilities and our deepest fears, and they know exactly where to prick and prod in order to inflict the most pain. But much more damaging than the sticks and stones hurled at us by others are the BOMBS we launch against ourselves. Most of us say cruel, hateful things to ourselves that we would never dream of saying to anyone else, and we have an inner reel of negative self-talk on a never-ending cycle of “play-rewind-repeat.” We step on the scales and tell ourselves we’re fat slobs. We look too closely in the mirror and declare that we’re ugly or old. We make a simple mistake at work and decide we’re stupid and incompetent. And, oh my, when we make the smallest parenting blunder, our children usually recover and forget long before we stop wallowing in the certainty that we are the worst parent ever.
We can’t grow without honest, constructive criticism, but we also can’t allow the opinions of others to define or destroy us. And even though we can often do better, we also need to add to that internal playlist the mantras that “I am still good” and “Sometimes, good is enough.” Really, would that stranger’s words have hurt me so deeply if they hadn’t reinforced an insecurity that was already there?
I understand that, in the big picture, this was such a minor incident that it should have been immediately shrugged off and already forgotten. After all, it wasn’t the first time that someone else’s words stung, and it won’t be the last. It’s impossible to live, work, decide, create without occasionally drawing the wrath or ridicule of another–intentional or not, deserved or not. And I am no saint myself. Although I have tried to live by my mother’s admonishment to be nice or be quiet–at least when talking to friends, acquaintances and strangers–I have certainly flung more than my share of sticks and stones (trees and boulders sometimes) at family members.
What I don’t understand, though, is when or why our society became so angry and cruel that so many feel the need–and the right–to verbally assault a stranger. Sit in the stands at any ballgame, and you’ll hear a barrage of insults directed at the biased referee or blind umpire. Sit long enough in a busy restaurant or stand in a long check-out line at Christmas, and you’ll hear over-worked waiters and cashiers berated for issues beyond their control. Even worse, scroll through a Facebook news feed or read the comments section on any online news story to witness the hatred of cowards who feel empowered by virtual anonymity. It’s much too easy to hide behind a computer screen, viciously attacking the appearance, intelligence, talents, parenting choices, political views, religious preferences, sexual orientation (and on and on and on) of someone they will most likely never meet. But easy will never make it right. Obviously, we’re always going to have differences of opinion (and thank goodness for that), but can’t we temper those differences with empathy and kindness?
Enough. It’s time for me to step off the soapbox and wander outside where the sun is shining and the daisies are blooming.
Please, whatever puts rainbows in your sky, don’t give someone else the power to take it all away. And don’t let the enemy within take it away, either.
“And yes, it really did look like that when it was seen
through my eyes and through my heart. The tools of our craft are a camera and a lens, but what makes it art is vision and passion . . .
I want the legacy that I create with my photographs to be judged
not by how many photographs I make in this lifetime but what those few magic frames do in the hearts and minds of others.”
–Photographer David duChemin
And here are a few of those fireworks photos from this year’s display . . . If you’d like to see more of my photos (sunsets and wildflowers and waterfalls–oh my!), click here to visit my public Facebook page–and please “like” it to get frequent updates. My friend Patty also took some great fireworks photos–to see them and more of her beautiful photos, you can visit PAC Photography’s page by clicking here.