It was the beginning of rush hour, and the Green Line train was almost full, forcing us to stand. As soon as we boarded I grabbed the bar on the back of the seat nearest me and adjusted my stance to absorb the jerk which I knew would follow as soon as we started.
I noticed a man sitting in the aisle seat a few rows back, and two things about him immediately grabbed my attention. One, he was sitting with his back ramrod straight, and two, he was ex-military, wearing a black corduroy baseball cap embroidered in red and yellow letters that said “Marine Veteran” and a badge that read “Vietnam Veteran” above the pocket of his denim jacket.
His self-assurance was fascinating, yet I also found his eyes-front posture intimidating because of the oversize aviator sunglasses that hid half of his handsome face, making it impossible to read his expression. I aimed my gaze over his head and out the window and wondered what he’d experienced in that war that was more humiliating to those who fought in it than any other in America’s history, and how it had shaped him.
I dance around my living room to the Staples Singers’ hit song, “Respect Yourself.” There’s a line in it that says it all: “If you don’t respect yourself ain’t nobody gonna give a good cahoot—”
The badges he wore told me that he’d come out of it with a personal sense of pride and purpose. But what about his spirit? Was the stern expression on his face the result of habit, discipline or residual bitterness?
I got my answer when he stood up to get off at Prudential and my husband turned to me and joked, “Take the seat, Gramma.”
The Marine smiled and offered, “Don’t worry, in my neighborhood they call me O.G.—Old Guy.”
“What do they call the old ladies?” I asked.
He gave me a serious look. “Oh, we wouldn’t do anything like that. I grew up in Chicago. We have more respect than that.”
Respect was exactly what he exemplified, and all of us could learn from it. No matter how devastating a loss or humiliation has been, we can always, like this former Marine, find visible ways to demonstrate the respect we have for ourselves, even in defeat.
As the current economic downturn, combined with demise of jobs due to the workquake (a seismic change in the nature of work itself), continues, hardly a week goes by when I don’t hear of some corporate professional who has worked long and hard only to be let go a few years short of retirement.
Or I learn about someone whose career was flowing along beautifully until the dip, who was suddenly thrown out of work and is now at a loss as to what to do.
Or I watch a once highly paid expert turn herself inside out to take a job far beneath her abilities.
Or I see the owner of a retail business struggle in a losing battle to hang on to an identity he has had for twenty-five years.
I would like to tell these people that their personal best, their dedication and their service counted, just like it did for the Marine, and that the defeat they suffered was because of circumstances beyond their control.
If they can get that, really get it, perhaps they’ll begin not to take it so personally, and they’ll be able to stand tall and act boldly.
What might that look like?
- Wear something on your person that symbolizes self-respect. I wear a bracelet made by Nepali women with the word “Namaste,” (“The spirit in me respects the spirit in you”) to remind me to make a conscious effort throughout the day to practice kindness to others and myself.
- Dress with care, even if you’re not going anywhere. Use care with your physical appearance to help prop-up your self esteem. The ex-Marine I met on the T was wearing casual clothes, but his outfit was so carefully put together it had the dignity of a full dress uniform. There are days we all need the feeling of inner authority that comes from well-chosen apparel.
- Get out of the house. Seek out people who have had similar challenges and are actively working on claiming back their lives. I don’t know how the Marine turned things around for himself, but I’m quite sure that sharing his experience with others was part of the mix (e.g., the Combat Paper project).
- Be of service. Become part of something bigger than your own personal problems. Volunteer for a service organization whose mission you respect, take action on a political issue that affects the quality of life in your community, initiate a neighborhood cleanup project, visit a homebound elder or a sick friend. Nothing is better at giving you the glow of feeling good about yourself than using your time and talents for the benefit of someone else.
- Tell the story of your own personal victories, even the small ones, to encourage people in your immediate circle, and then gradually, perhaps through social media or a blog, extend the reach of the positive reinforcement you have to offer to people beyond your immediate circle. One of my clients shares her adventure in transforming her professional life in a blog called All Fives.
If all else fails, there’s one more thing. I can’t imagine the ex-Marine doing this, but it never fails to work for me when I feel totally defeated by what life has thrown my way.
And that’s the truth!