I remember perfectly the first time a classmate called me a “fatass.” I was in the second grade, and it made me feel like 105 pounds of chubby garbage.
As an only child accustomed to doting parents and spared the skin-thickening slings and arrows of daily sibling battles, I was easily wounded by harsh words. They’d fester inside me for hours, days even, before I’d quit re-living the moments while trying to go to sleep at night.
Things changed in college, though.
Throughout undergraduate school and into the first few years of my professional career, I wrote a newspaper column. (Note to readers under 30: “Newspapers” were a thing people used to read every day that had a bunch of different articles on a variety of topics, and a “column” is what you now refer to as a “post.”)
My columns were usually of the sarcastic-humor variety (shocking, I know), which people tend to enjoy — unless you and your ilk are the target of the jokes, and there’s always a target. If I was the pigeon, someone had to be the statue.
This built me a decent little fan base, but also a fair number of detractors. Every week, without fail, some of the most riled-up detractors would actually set aside time in their day to write a letter to the editor detailing what a wrong-headed, ignorant, arrogant prick I was. Each scribe would use his/her own colorful language to describe me, but that was usually the gist of it.
At first, the little kid in me felt wounded all over again. I wanted to lash out at all of them (which was harder to do back then, before the “reply” button was invented). But I quickly realized that this was just the way of the world for writers: if you write anything that’s the least bit interesting, then some people are going to hate it, and hate you.
I knew that in a given week, if I got three letters to the editor bashing my column, then at least 10 times that many people were just as off-put by what I wrote yet didn’t have the motivation to send in a letter. And at least 10 times that many maybe weren’t quite as pissy about what I wrote, but they didn’t like it, and they didn’t like me.
Now, once that sinks in, you can go one of two ways: you can stop writing altogether because you cringe at the prospect of offending so many people that you’ll never actually meet, or you can just stop giving a shit.
I chose the latter, and it was an easy choice when I began thinking of critics as barking dogs. If I walk down the street and a dog barks at me, I don’t take it to heart. It’s just a dog being a dog. It’s what they do.
People aren’t much different. At least if a dog doesn’t like you, he’ll bark at you and let you know. Most people who don’t like you, on the other hand, will keep silent, at least to your face. And most you’ll never even know about.
Each should have the same effect on your life: zero. Outside of what you assign to them, the barking of a passing dog should be no more consequential to you than the disdain of a person who doesn’t like you. If there’s a dog in Chicago barking himself into a fury right now with a thought bubble above his head with a picture of me in it, I am unaffected by this. The same is true of all humans in all cities doing the human equivalent of rage-barking.
Later, I learned that this is true not just for writers, but for all people. No matter who you are or what a wonderful human being you try to and may actually be, you simply won’t be some people’s cup of tea. If you’re reading this right now, it’s an absolute fact that dozens of people find you unpleasant and would prefer never to see you again.
That’s just how it is. If you don’t believe me, Google “fuck Mother Teresa” — there are over 200,000 results. That pretty much says it all.
Somewhere along the line, we all pick up this notion that if someone doesn’t like us, we’re supposed to fix that. That it means there’s something wrong with us that we need to change. Children and adults alike will absolutely squirm with discomfort when forced into a conversation with someone we know dislikes us.
But you can’t change the unchangeable, and trying to do so will suck the life and joy out of you. The primary source of unhappiness among human beings is wishing for things to be some particular way that they cannot be.
You cannot make everyone like you, and you shouldn’t try. The people who don’t like you are just barking dogs behind a fence; just keep walking, and their clamor fades quickly.
This isn’t easy at first, but once you master it, the liberation is life-changing. When you can look across the aisle at someone who doesn’t fancy you and imagine a loud “WOOF!” coming out of their mouth as he/she speaks, then criticism doesn’t bother you much anymore. You become a more resilient person, more difficult to dissuade, harder to knock off course.
Everywhere you go, until the day you die, dogs will bark at you, wasps will want to sting you, clouds will rain on you, and some people won’t like you.
It’s no big deal. Just keep on walkin’.