Many years ago when I lived in New York City, I helped a friend execute a brilliant gift idea for her mother’s birthday.
Because her mom lived far away, they couldn’t be together to celebrate, so my friend decided to send her something very special.
First, she made a giant sign that said HAPPY BIRTHDAY with her mom’s name on it.
Phase One complete.
Then she carried that enormous sign with her (on the subway, no less) to a series of recognizable New York City landmarks, and asked strangers to hold it up and wave while she took their picture.
She created a photo montage of kooky, joyful, personalized birthday greetings from the Big Apple for her mom to cherish, a unique and wonderful gift that I’m sure was a great hit in Oklahoma.
A Rejection Story
I think it was the quirk factor and the sheer brazenness of it that made me want to accompany my friend on her photo shoot that day.
We started on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Everyone my friend approached was friendly and open. They held the sign before the camera with apparent glee, smiling and waving for the benefit of an unknown woman about to have a birthday halfway across the country.
Individuals, groups, everyone my friend approached seemed tickled to be part of the project.
But when our momentum carried us to Grand Central Station, we encountered our first speed bump.
Emotional Autopilot in Action
I was standing aside at this point, letting my newly extroverted friend work her magic on passers-by. She’d gotten good at recruiting people and seemed to be enjoying herself.
I watched as she approached a particular man near the ticket counters and started her “be in my mom’s birthday card” pitch.
I saw the man decline, and not in a friendly way.
The rejection was unexpected, given our raging success so far. I felt a pang of dismay for my friend, who was a sensitive soul not disinclined to embarrassment.
But my friend didn’t miss a beat. She changed her flight plan in mid-air and swooped down on the next closest stranger. Done and done.
When she was finished and came back to where I was standing, I told her what I’d seen.
“When that first man said No, you didn’t even pause. You turned right around and went after someone else. You must have experienced a moment of rejection. Did you feel it?”
(I was not yet a therapist, but I did have an eye on human behavior and a lack of conversational discretion.)
Graciously, my friend did not slap me.
Instead, she thought about it and agreed that the rejection had taken her by surprise, and stung a little, and she’d chosen to ignore it.
Truth Hurts… But Consider the Alternative
The auto-pilot response of continuing along as if nothing had happened is something almost all of us do, at least some of the time.
You can’t always afford to pause and let stuff sink in. You’ve got places to go, people to see, things to do.
But if you ignore the truth of your experience — in this case, a small rejection by a stranger — most of the time, pretty soon it becomes automatic.
Pretty soon, it’s hard to tell the truth of your experience.
If you always tell yourself “It doesn’t matter,” “It’s no big deal,” etc., then you could find yourself living a life in which nothing matters to you.
… Which is kind of depressing, don’t you think?
It’s a paradox; sometimes you have to embrace pain in order to keep it manageable. By letting little “ouches” sink in, you can stay in contact with your heart and the truths it contains.
You never know when you might need them.