When you look back at the life you’ve lived, it’s occasionally interesting to think of the three, four, five, etc., significant events you’ve experienced which have shaped your ideals, thoughts, esteem, and changed the trajectory of your beliefs or actions. All of these circumstances have been meaningful enough to set you on a path you might not have otherwise encountered. In this series of posts, I’ll embark on an interesting experiment to recall and recapture the feelings associated with some of the most significant life events that have either directly or indirectly shaped my worldview and the life I live today. My hope is that, through this, you’ll begin to rehash those significant moments in your own life and realize the impact those moments still have, further prompting you to explore the insight of your interactions with yourself and others.
“A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
MY FIRST SIGNIFICANT MEMORY OF REJECTION
When I was young, around the age of nine, I enjoyed going to the Boys and Girls club. Because I was often sidetracked by other activities during the school year, I didn’t get to go as often as I’d liked. The summer break, however, provided unlimited opportunities to explore untapped reservoirs of possibility. In other words, I had all the time in the world to do what I wanted to do.
A natural obstacle to the land of immeasurable fun proved to be the limited number of kids I knew who were members of this minimally exclusive club. As a result, my attendance to the Boys and Girls club was better defined as infrequent and sporadic. Every time I was invited, or had the opportunity to spend an afternoon up there with a friend, I would jump at the chance to go.
One day, boredom set it and I thought my afternoon would be better served playing ping-pong, foosball, or many of the other activities I didn’t have at home. I gave my friend a call. No answer. Typically, I would have found another avenue of excitement, but my commitment to be entertained was overwhelming.
That’s ok, I thought, I’ll see if mom is willing to drive me up there. I might know somebody who’s there.
My mom was supportive of my idea, so we loaded into the car and headed over.
“Mom, wait here” I said, “i’ll go in and see if I know anyone.”
“Okay, I’ll be right here,” she replied.
I walked into the front door of the Boys and Girls club and was immediately met with the sounds of basketballs echoing off the institutionally gray gym walls. I heard a television set blaring an unidentified cartoon in a game room directly to the right of the club’s entrance. In the same room, I witnessed two people enthusiastically slamming checkers on the surface of a small table pushed against the opposite wall; all the contagious sounds of kids having a good time.
Like a front line member of a SWAT team serving an overdue warrant, I swept through each room, searching for at least one person I knew or had maybe interacted with in the past. Guided by the distinct musky scent of any Boys and Girls club across the United States, I began my search in the game room. All I found were strangers, so I walked to the gym, stopping for a second to peer in. Still, nobody I knew or recognized. I kept moving forward, knowing that my options of finding a buddy were small. I walked into the recreation room filled with dart boards, pool, ping-pong and foosball tables, and a shuffle board.
The only people to occupy this room were two boys, each holding a pool cue, both attentive to a pool table littered with balls. I didn’t know either of them, but the thought of playing pool seemed fun. It was certainly a lot more exciting than going back home and relying on my imagination.
Even though I hadn’t found a friend to play with, I resolved myself to stay. I walked back out to the car.
“Hey mom, I think I’m going to stay,” I told her as she lowered her driver’s side window.
“Did you find your friend?” she replied.
“No, but it’s okay. I’ll call you when I’m ready to come home.” I said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
With the finality of my decision, she pulled away from the Boys and Girls Club and I walked back inside.
As a child, I was rather shy. I don’t know which strand of DNA steered my introverted nature, but I do know it was more prominent than any other personality trait. My naturally subconscious tendency was to feel people out, to see who they really were, and then to try to match that with my own characteristics. If they were similar, I typically found a new friend.
It wasn’t often I’d take the chance of trying to make friends from scratch. The process seemed too overwhelming.
Having pushed all of my timidness aside, I immediately strutted to the place where I had been inspired, the recreation room. In a scene that appeared as if had recreated itself, there were the two boys, each holding a pool cue, both attentive to a pool table littered with balls. I paused. It took a few seconds to muster up the courage to ask if I could play with them. Finally, I asked, “Hey, can I play?” They both looked my direction, and for what seemed like an eternity, there was a brief silence.
My heart dropped into my stomach. What do you mean, no, I thought.
As quickly as they acknowledged me, they turned back to their game. It was as if I no longer existed. For a few seconds, I stood in disbelief. I couldn’t fathom how somebody could be so dismissive.
And then I walked away.
I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Had it not been for the pool table and the thought of playing with these two boys, I more than likely would have gotten into the car and headed back home. I retreated into the game room, and with a vague recollection of an unidentified cartoon blaring through the tiny speakers of an out-of-date tv, I felt the sting of rejection for the first time. A minute later, I no longer wanted to be there.
I called my mom from the free phone located just above the check-in station. We lived around the corner from the “club” so it didn’t take her long to get home. I imagine her surprise when she picked up the phone.
“Mom, can you come pick me up?” I asked.
She could probably hear the subtle feelings of rejection in my voice.
“Justin, what happened?” she inquired.
“I just want to come home,” I replied.
We hung up the phone and I walked outside. I didn’t want to hear the joy of the other kids, who probably hadn’t felt the way I did and who were more than likely having fun feeling included with their friends. Instead, for the next few minutes I soaked in a particular vulnerability I had never felt before.
As a nine year old, I didn’t know how to process rejection. I didn’t consider the structure of how the game of pool is typically a two person affair. I wasn’t yet in tune with how some people never really develop skills of empathy and aren’t capable of seeing a perspective outside of their own. I wasn’t even adept to realizing that some people are simply jerks. I just felt a rejection validated by a belief that something about me wasn’t inviting to somebody else. And it hurt.
I saw my mom’s vehicle turn onto the street adjacent to the curb I was sitting on. Like a hostage in a foreign country, I rejoiced when I witnessed familiarity. My mom pulled up and I crawled inside.
“Justin, what happened?” she asked again with concern.
Battling through various emotions, I had, until then, kept it together. The softness in my mother’s voice was the iron hammer used to penetrate through a glass labeled “Break in case of an emergency”. To be back in a situation where I knew someone loved me unconditionally was all it took to smash through the pane and pull the figurative alarm that relayed hurt feelings. Instead of overhead sprinklers, this alarm produced tears.
At that time, rejection was the hardest emotion I had experienced. We all encounter dismissal in one way or another, but the moment was so cold and empty that it resonated for years afterward. It shaped the outer areas of my personality and fueled a reluctance to expose myself to the vulnerabilities of being in a place where I didn’t know a single person.
Luckily, where there is a yin, there is also a yang. As I grew older, I began to use that occurrence as a building block for empathy. Rejection was no longer a concept, it was something I had experienced. I resolved myself to never allow anyone to walk away from me feeling the same way I did when I was nine years old. I became inclusive and started caring about the feelings of others, never wanting anyone to feel left out or lonely. It led me to care about people from a really young age.
I’ve always been a friendly person, but to this day, I look back and remember I have to do more than what comes naturally to me. When I’m in familiar crowds, I try to make sure everyone on the outside feels comfortable and is having a good time. And when I notice somebody is not having fun, I feel a certain inclination or responsibility to change those circumstances, if I’m able to.
If I can produce those efforts, then more often than not, I win. The angst of thinking about the reality of rejection is supplanted by an acknowledgement of my worth to any relationship I carry with me. Ultimately, that’s why we go through these kinds of events. Not to paralyze us, but to change the way we think about others, or ourselves. I always have the nine year old me and the two jerks at the Boys and Girls club to thank for that.
How does your first remembrance of rejection compare to mine? How has that moment shaped you even to this day?