I was thinking about perceptions the other day. Our perceptions are colored not only by our experiences, but also by our lack of experiences and by the ways that we want others to perceive us. If you want to be seen as competent and knowledgeable, but lack experience, then you will tend to see any questioning of your abilities as an attack, whether that is true or not. If you are not well traveled, but want to be seen as worldly and sophisticated then you will tend to see anyone who is actually well traveled as a threat. No one starts off knowing everything, we all have to learn along the way, but most of us still want to be seen as competent and interesting folks who fulfill a vital role. It’s Human nature to want to feel important, and there is nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is when we are unable to recognize our limitations and to be honest about our shortcomings. If a person can not admit when they need help or when they aren’t quite as spectacular as they would have everyone else believe then it leads to conflict. Eventually, no matter how amazing you may be, someone else will come along who is smarter, faster, more knowledgeable, or just plain better at a particular task. It’s inevitable. You can either learn from the experience and grow, or become bitter and shrink.
I had all of these thoughts in my head when an incident from several years ago suddenly popped into my memory, as if to illustrate the point.
Back when I was new in the Navy, and had just graduated from Naval Hospital Corps School, I was feeling invincible and important. I was temporarily stationed at Naval Hospital Great Lakes while I waited for a class to open up at Field Medical Service School. I was learning something new every day, and I felt as though I possessed a vast wealth of knowledge and skills. Unfortunately for me none of this new found knowledge or my freshly acquired skills seemed to show on the outside. To everyone who knew me outside of my Corps School class I was still just goofy Nick. I had been living in Kalamazoo, MI before joining the Navy and Great Lakes, IL. was a short train ride away, so I had ample opportunities to return home on leave, but every time that I made the trip I felt myself getting more and more frustrated by the way my friends would treat me. They would see me in my dress blues and act as if I had been away forever, but as soon as I changed into normal clothing it was as if, in their eyes, I became the person that they had always known, no different than I had been before I left for boot camp. It was frustrating and it bothered me a lot, but I eventually just let it go. I knew who I was, and I was OK if my friends didn’t quite see my new self just yet. I figured that I still had a lot to learn and that eventually my friends would realize that I had changed, there was no need to boast or brag about my limited accomplishments just to make myself feel more important. Beyond those initial understandings, I also realized that when you brag too much that eventually someone will come along to knock you off of your pedestal. Not long after having this revelation I ended up being that someone for another person, an unfortunate person who did not realize that bragging is a bad idea in mixed company.
One day, while I was home on leave, I was out with my girlfriend at the time when she managed to drag me along to one of her friend’s houses. Many of her new friends were stuck up college girls who truly believed that they were what they studied (‘Oh, I know ALL about photography, It’s my major, so if you need a good shot you should probably ask me, because I like, KNOW photography.’). These girls would take every opportunity to flaunt their limited knowledge and skills and to put down my girlfriend in the process. My then girlfriend was quiet and non-confrontational, so she rarely ever stuck up for herself. I never understood why she would hang out with these people and I hated seeing it, so I avoided her so-called friends like the plague, but occasionally it was unavoidable and I would end up dealing with annoying college girls all night long. On this particular day we were visiting a girl who had absolutely never done anything important in her life and had never accomplished anything for herself, she paid her way through life using her daddy’s bank account and co-opted the accomplishments of others to make herself feel more important. I hated her with every fibre of my being. This girl was busy blah, blah, blahing away when something she said grabbed my attention. She was jabbering on about some Navy guy that she had dated and how amazing it was to be with someone so brave and important, someone who was willing to risk his life for our freedom. She then mentioned that he was an important Navy Mess Specialist. I smiled at that. Mess Specialists are important, the run the galleys, the organize the food supplies, manage the berthing, etc. The Mess Specialists that I have known were all good guys and I liked them, but I would hardly hoist them up as brave Navy sailors, fighting the good fight. They are important functionaries, not combat hardened soldiers. The girl must have noticed my smile, because she paused long enough to look me over and then made her fatal mistake by saying,
“Nice peacoat, my boyfriend gave me one too, but mine is real.”
I laughed and told her that mine was real too. She sneered and asked me where I got it. So I smiled and said, “It was issued to me, in boot camp. I’m a Navy Hospital Corpsman.”
The girl blanched at that and began to sputter something about his coat probably being older, and that’s why it looked a little different. I just smiled and shook my head. The rest of the visit was pretty awkward and I mostly sat in silence as I contemplated the example that I was just handed about why boasting over minor feats is such a bad idea.
On our way out I smiled politely and said, “Making yourself look important by putting other people down never works out, does it?”
She looked down at her feet, and shut the door on me. I felt kind of bad about that, but she had spent the whole night subtly putting us down while she talked herself up, so I felt as if she had it coming.
A lot of things could be taken from that event, but what I chose to take away was that if you have to throw your accomplishments (or the accomplishments of your friends) in other people’s faces, then maybe you haven’t really accomplished much at all. Being proud of your self is Human, being boastful is just stupid.
Eventually my friends realized that I wasn’t just goofy old Nick anymore and treated me with more respect, but it didn’t happen because of any skills or knowledge that I could flaunt at them. It happened because those skills and knowledge made me into a better person, someone who didn’t need to boast or brag to gain respect or attention. I also realized that no matter how much I learned or how many amazing things I did that I would always still be goofy. There would always be someone out there who could run faster, jump higher, and know more than me, but no matter how great someone else may be they could never be me. That knowledge helped me to be happy to be me, flaws and all.