Sticks and Stones and the Danger of Public Nudity

“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.


About icedteawithlemon

I have recently retired from a 30-year career in education in one of the best school districts in the world. I hope to spend my second life reading, writing, photographing, traveling, biking, cheering on my favorite baseball team (the St. Louis Cardinals), and soaking up glorious sunshine. In my spare time I enjoy playing with my pet tarantulas, trying out new flavors of chewing gum, and knitting socks for prison inmates. I'm almost positive that in a past life I was one of the Seven Dwarfs (most likely "Grumpy"), and in my next life I'm going to be either a taste tester for Hershey's or a model for Victoria's Secret's new line, "Bloomers for Boomers." I want to travel country back roads, singing Vanilla Ice songs at every karaoke bar and rating bathroom cleanliness at every truckstop. And someday I plan to own a private beach where skinny girls aren't allowed. I want to be a writer when I grow up. "Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."--Henry David Thoreau
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26 Responses to Sticks and Stones and the Danger of Public Nudity

  1. Your photos are spectacular. People like the person who criticized you only deserve your silence. It’s true that you gave away your power. But think of this: that person must be very unhappy to want to bring you down. And unfortunately, some people get their ups by bringing other people down. Just be grateful that you’re not one of them. 🙂

    • Thank you, Carol. Negativity breeds negativity, and there have been times when I’ve been surrounded by unhappy people and have found myself succumbing to their influence. I don’t want to be like that–and most of the time, I’m not. I do get frustrated with myself, though, when I give my power away–all the while knowing that I shouldn’t.

      And thank you for stopping by! I just visited your site and will be visiting again. (The “Ten First Dates” series sounds intriguing!)

  2. Sue says:

    Oh Karen, While reading your blog today, a big lump of tears for you was forming in my stomach. I read this comment at the time and tried in my mind to twist it into a compliment to your abilities – the photos are so unbelievably beautiful!!! – I was dumbfounded that he was actually criticizing them. It’s bad enough you have had the trauma of Lucas moving, then the poison ivy, then the poison oak and now the POISON PERSON. I’ve found out that there are just people in this world who are simply negative and pessimistic about life itself. This dumbass just seems to enjoy inflicting pain, knowing full well what he’s doing. The old saying that we should only surround ourselves with happy people is difficult with the social media anymore.
    Is it just human nature that we can be in the midst of happiness & contentment and choose to obsess over one tiny detrimental comment? I’ve been doing that a lot lately and it makes me angry with myself. However, I had NO idea that you were knocking yourself out too. To ignore your enthusiasm for your camera, your writing and your summertime fun in general is not like you! How dare one ignorant person do this to you!! I know you will show this person that YOU are better than that. You WILL choose to be happy instead!!!

    • Ahh, Sue, you are always my greatest champion–thank you for your support and loyalty. It has been a difficult summer for many reasons, but I’m a pretty tough ol’ gal and will persevere. And yes, I think it is human nature (at least for many of us) to obsess over one negative when there are plenty of positives to outweigh it–but just to be clear, he was only able to take away my enthusiasm because I allowed him to do so. The fault is mine, and I’m going to work on that …

  3. RayEtta says:

    I think the photos are really beautifu. They are professional looking and that is why the man just had to be so negative. He is used to seeing more photos taken on a phone. Don’t you think we females are a little more disappointed when something like this comes our way? Not all women, I have known a few that could be really ugly, but most of us because of our natural way of nuturing others are shocked when we see something else in people. We want to be kind to others. The photos are really nice and you must have a great camera.

    • Thank you, RayEtta. And you may be right about women being more susceptible to negativity–not that we can’t be negative ourselves, but we are taught to be polite and nice and sometimes we’re caught off guard when others aren’t.

  4. Lovely photos – don’t worry about him!

    • Thank you! The easiest way for me to get rid of whatever is troubling me is to write about it–which I have done–and now it’s time to move on and get back to my regularly scheduled programming of joy. 🙂

  5. jenniferleewalker says:

    Your assignment for Weekend reading….”the war of art” and “turning pro” ….stephen Pressfield …not directly tied to this …but kinda, sorta………

    • Jenny, just from the titles I can already imagine the message, but I’ll look for the books anyway. I can use some toughening up. I don’t know if you’re aware that my oldest son Zac has a degree in art and a graduate degree in oil painting. When the economy bottomed out a few years ago and no one was willing to pay thousands for his oil paintings, he moved to LA and used his artistic talents to start his own film production company. If you get a chance, read his response to the blog on my Facebook page–he didn’t cut his mama any slack, and I’m pretty sure you’ll agree with everything he said. 🙂

  6. Castlefreak :) says:

    Negativity and drama are the things I hate most about Facebook! No one can keep their nasty remarks to themselves. That man probably spreads negative remarks everywhere he goes on Facebook. Some people just thrive on that…. I see it all the time; on groups and pages, as well as public forums elsewhere on the internet. It’s great to hear different opinions IF they are being constructive and respectful, but throwing hateful, hurtful remarks is not necessary. Don’t let those kind of people ruin your fun and creativity! I believe in Karma…and someday someone will pee on that man’s rainbow!! 😀 PS Your photos were fabulous!!

    • Thank you! I believe in karma, too. And yes, there is an over-abundance of negativity and drama online. I sometimes read through the comments sections of online news stories because I want to consider different perspectives–as well as through public forums when I’m doing research–and the nastiness that some people exhibit can be shocking and disheartening. I think many of them must feel safe hiding behind a computer screen, but it wouldn’t be that hard (thanks to the internet) for an offended reader to track down the offender if he/she felt so inclined.

      • Castlefreak :) says:

        I’m so glad I’m not the only one who sees this!! It sometimes takes all I have to NOT open my big mouth and tell those kind of people that they are nasty, hateful individuals….but what good would that do? Pftt….I just keep my trap shut and move on. 😀

  7. Ummmm….let me just say that, as a budding, wanna-be photographer, the guy is out of his mind to think that your photos could be photoshopped to be that good. I can promise you that there is no Photoshop, Illustrator, Lightroom, or any other packaged product in this world that could have made my fireworks pictures look like that. You can’t make bright colors appear and take as much blur out of mine to get them that way. I would love to know the tips and tricks and strategies of lighting, night photography, etc. to capture what you did. I’m not there yet. But I know for certain that what you captured and how you captured it was all purely education, skill, and practice. Kudos to you!

    As for the absorption of those negative comments, I was just at a conference and learned about this “Brain Gym” stuff that was absolutely fascinating. It was an amazing demonstration of how we absorb negative and positive energy…and he talked a little about teaching you how to block negative energy people when you’re around them. It’s an easily done “rewiring” of the brain and body. Not sure what’s online about it, but there are Brain Gym “counselors” (or something like that) and some books.

    • Thank you, Janet. I still have so much to learn about photography, but I have been fortunate to have my three sons and a few friends so willing to provide guidance. Night photography is my greatest weakness and something I hope to spend more time working on in the year ahead–and fireworks photography is difficult, too, because there are limited opportunities to practice it. Using a tripod is mandatory to reduce shake for the long exposures necessary (most of mine were shot with 15-second exposures); I also locked my camera’s internal mirror to reduce shake even more and used an external shutter release cable. And since I can’t predict what will happen during that 15 seconds of exposure, there’s also a great deal of luck involved–I’m sure I delete as many photos as I save.

      I’m not sure if you’ve read it, but one of my friends above recommended “The War of Art” by Stephen Pressfield, and after reading the online reviews, I ordered it immediately. The “Brain Gym” idea is also intriguing, and I’ll be researching it to see what I can find. I can certainly use help blocking negative energy, but I also just enjoy learning new stuff!

      • The book looks good! I added it to my wish list! Oh…and think of it as radiating positive energy and using that positive energy to influence others instead of blocking the negative (though blocking is a part of it). I should’ve said it like that in the first place. It’s such a much better way to look at it. 🙂

      • Using positive energy to influence others … I like that! That fits right in with my hippie chick “daisies and rainbows” philosophy. 😉

  8. bronxboy55 says:

    I’d never thought about this before, but your blog features two very different skills. The reader wants the writing to be smoothed and polished and edited to perfection. But the photography has to be — what? — more natural? Your words always describe the timeless thoughts and emotions we all experience, while you somehow manage to capture beautiful and fleeting moments and turn them into permanent images. The problem is that you’re too good at both. No wonder he hates you. I hate you, too.

    • Ha! I’ll take your hatred as a compliment, Charles. And I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way, but there does seem to be a contradiction, doesn’t there? Writing will always be my greatest love, but photography intrigues me and challenges me to look for ways to improve, and so the harder I work to improve, the more likely I am to be criticized for not being “real”? That doesn’t seem fair, especially since I’ve never professed to being anything more than an amateur sharing her joy.

  9. Liliofthefield says:

    Karen, my dear, take it from one who scrutinizes photographs and writing and practically everything under the sun, and is hyper critical (one of my lesser charming qualities I’m trying rather hard to work at) – each and every time I open your blog and peruse your superlative photos I am gobsmacked at their clarity, depth, beauty, and personality. I mean that. I am so envious of your talent as a photographer.

    Okay, that was a run-on sentence. I criticize myself!

    Allow me to be rather blunt here. I am, among many things, a very sensitive person who also doesn’t, or rather, didn’t take criticism at all well. I experienced a turning point a couple of years back where I really and truly toughened up. I also was one who didn’t stick up for myself very well; I’d allow people to attack my person, my character, my being, and after walking away I’d come up with strong counter attacks – complete with strong language – in my head. I never verbalized myself when the heat was on me.

    No more, honey. No more. I am now at a point in my life where, if someone pisses me off to no end, they get it back – in spades. No more Ms. Nice Guy, when the situation warrants it, of course. If anyone dares to throw caca in my face, they now get it back – to the power of ten.

    Honey, we’re never, none of us, going to please everyone, nor are any of us going to have everyone rooting for us. If YOU believe in your talent (and you SHOULD!), and if anyone makes an unfair, unjust remark about any aspect of your work or you as a person, then to hell with them.
    Encourage yourself; believe in yourself, and never for one minute doubt who you are.

    Or, as my eldest son says (much to my chagrin…but I secretly agree) “F**k ’em, and move on.” Pardon the potty lingo.

    Just saw this quote yesterday…it has absolutely no place here, but, what the hell?

    “How many husbands have I had? You mean, apart from my own?”
    -Zsa Zsa Gabor

    Tiger Lil – with sharp claws that extend when necessary; otherwise, I purr.

    • I, too, am quite adept at coming up with strong counter attacks, but I have yet found the courage to vocalize them. In truth, I don’t know if I ever will–or if I even want to. Much better would be to develop the ability to shrug off those negative comments and move on–and two of my three sons have advised pretty much the same as your eldest son (in almost identical language, which seems to be the norm for their generation). Regardless, I appreciate the kind encouragement I receive from you and so many others, and that encouragement motivates me to continue shooting and sharing. Thank you.

  10. Liliofthefield says:

    Okay, we can do much better than Zsa Zsa.

    “Go and catch a falling star,
    Get with child a mandrake root,
    Tell me where all past years are,
    Or who cleft the devil’s foot,
    Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
    Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
    And find what wind
    Serves to advance an honest mind.”
    – John Donne

    LOVE this one by Walt:

    “Have you learned the lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you? Have you not learned great lessons from those who braced themselves against you, and disputed passage with you?”
    – Walt Whitman

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