Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Coffee Stain

“Shyness has a strange element of narcissism. A Belief that how we look, how we perform, is truly important to other people.” ~ Andre Dubus

Growing up next door to one of the fashion capitals of the world, appearances used to be very important to me. I clearly remember that, as a teenager, I would not even go outside unless I had make-up on, or wore high-heels. Then life caught up with me, and over time I came to accept that some of these things really don’t matter.

Last week, I stopped by a local Target while on my way home from running other errands; since I had rushed most of the morning, I stopped at the adjoining Starbucks to get a cup of coffee I could sip while picking up groceries and new goggles for my daughter. I hadn’t even left the coffee shop when I felt something very hot splash over my leg – the lid on the coffee cup wasn’t completely closed, and some of the steaming beverage had spilled right on my pants!

Mumbling the whole way there, I went to the ladies’ room to see if I could, somehow, repair some of the damage. The stain had by now spread and there was little I could do; I wet a paper towel and vigorously rubbed the stain, hoping to magically see it disappear, but when I stopped the stain was still there; if that wasn’t enough, it was now strangely decorated with dozens of tiny paper specks that had attached to the wet fabric.

Great! What was I to do now? I couldn’t waste the precious hour of child-free shopping, yet I was uncomfortable walking around the store with wet, stained clothes. It was time to make a decision. And that’s when I looked around. Everyone was absorbed in what they were doing, and barely making eye contact with strangers. Were these people really going to snap out of their own reveries and routines to acknowledge the fact that my pants were stained? Hardly.

The decision was made – I wasn’t going to let a stain redirect the course of my day. I marched toward the aisles and proceeded to look for the things I needed. By the time I got back to my car, I assessed the situation: not a single person had looked at me twice, or even hinted at the fact they had noticed anything strange.

We invest so much energy worrying about what others are going to think that we often lose sight of the fact that most people don’t really notice the same things we do. And, even if they do notice, what are the chances that they will continue thinking about what they saw for more than a few seconds? Once we are out of their sight, their awareness of us and our ‘unforgivable’ problem is gone and forgotten; if they met us the next day, they would likely not even remember they had seen us before.

Similarly, I use to get irritated at my husband when he acted foolishly inside the grocery store; did I think that people were going to devote more than a tiny fragment of their time to evaluate his performance? Did I actually entertain the thought that they were taking that one experience home to be discussed over dinner with their families?

These days I no longer worry about appearances, just as much as I no longer feel awkward expressing my thoughts to others. Growing older doesn’t only bring upon gifts of wrinkles and gray hair, but it also allows one to realize that self-consciousness is often synonymous with personal arrogance.