Ever since I binge watched all six seasons of Homeland, I haven’t been able to get Gil Scott-Heron’s subversive words, featured in the opening credits, out of my head.
In the yoga/meditation/navel gazing circles I run in, we talk ad nauseam about how to change your mind about yourself. We learn to identify negative thought patterns and replace them with positive narratives that empower us to be our best selves and live our best lives.
But as I write this on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in this time of political and cultural polarization, where our President refers to entire countries as “shitholes,” male celebrities and titans of industry are being outed and ousted for systemic sexual abuse of women, and everyone is guilty of uttering the phrase those people, I find myself reflecting on what it takes to change your mind about someone else. Not an entire group of people; that’s too big for this blog. But a single person, who might, in turn, change your mind about something else.
Freezer Burnt Chicken McNuggets
I miss my paternal grandmother. It always feels weird to say that because for the first sixteen years of my life, I didn’t like her very much. The easiest way of explaining this is to say she wasn’t very grandmotherly. She was controlling, critical, and unable to connect with me and my brother on our level. The fact that she lived in Texas while we lived in Michigan didn’t help.
When I watch my mother with my niece, I think now there’s a grandmother. Her love for her granddaughter is unconditional and limitless. She let’s her eat whatever she wants; take her on adventures to see the owls and bald eagles at the local science center; and shells out for tickets to kid-friendly cultural events, like a local production of The Little Mermaid, the musical. Most of all, she gives my niece her undivided attention. In return, my niece adores her. Adores her. It’s adorable.
Whereas my mother lets my niece eat whatever she wants, when my brother and I visited my grandmother we were always served the same meal: frozen Chicken McNuggets. Perhaps you’re wondering where one buys frozen Chicken McNuggets. The answer is McDonald’s. My grandmother would go to McDonald’s before we arrived, buy a bunch of Chicken McNuggets, store them in the freezer, and then reheat them in her toaster oven when we got there. We didn’t even like Chicken McNuggets all that much, let alone ones that were freezer burnt, but we may have enjoyed the experience of going to McDonald’s together.
Once, when I was in high school, my grandmother conceded to letting me borrow her car. The next morning she confronted me, yelling at me for misplacing her keys. When I showed her that I had left them exactly where I had found them, she didn’t apologize; she accused me of not listening to her instructions to leave them somewhere else. I rolled my eyes and walked away on egg shells.
Penmanship is Mightier Than the Sword
Later that same visit, something happened that changed the course of our relationship forever: she complimented me.
I was sprawled on the floor of her living room studying for an upcoming test, notebooks and textbooks strewn around me. Pointing to a page in my notebook she asked, “Is that your handwriting?”
I froze, convinced it was a trap. “Yes,” I sighed, still looking at the floor.
“It’s lovely,” she said.
With that one of the bricks in the wall between us crumbled, and through the hole I saw, not a different version of my grandmother, but a more complete picture of the woman she was. Over the years, as we continued to become acquainted as adults, that wall came down completely. I won’t say we were ever truly close, but we developed a mutual respect and admiration that approached friendship.
During the years I lived overseas, when so many people in my life were asking me to return home, she would ask, “Are you happy?”
“Yes,” I would reply.
“Then you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.” She was the only one who got it.
My grandmother lived to be 97, and her mind went before her body. It broke my heart visiting her in those final years. This woman, who had lived alone for 20 years following my grandfather’s death and traveled to all seven continents, could no longer care for basic needs. One of my final memories of us together is of me feeding her chocolate ice cream in the dining hall of her nursing home, just as she had fed me frozen chicken nuggets when I was a child. A full circle that started the time my grandmother complimented me on my penmanship.
What did it take for me to change my mind about my grandmother? Simple. She acted in a way that was unexpected and I noticed. Then, I got curious.
Yes, my grandmother was high strung and too cerebral to relate to children, but she was also a badass bitch. She was one of the first women to graduate with a business degree from The City University of New York in the 1940s, and had a career as a bookkeeper at a furniture store, even after having children. She fiercely protected her family and had incredible female friendships that sustained her after my grandfather died. Did I mention she traveled to Antartica?
I started to see all the things we had in common, the good (our independence, wanderlust and ambition) and the bad (our impatience, anxiety and criticism). I also learned about the causes and conditions of her life, starting with when her family fled to the United States as religious refugees from Russia in the early 1920s. Both of these things helped me to relate to and understand her. That she wasn’t very grandmotherly was true, but enveloped by all these other fascinating facts about her life, it lost much of its significance.
Changing my mind about my grandmother was a process. One that required effort, openness and desire on both sides. Not to mention humility, vulnerability and time. It was worth it though, because shifting my relationship to my grandmother subtly shifted my relationship to something even bigger: my family. In witnessing my mother, who had already buried her own mother, travel to Texas to oversee the care of her mother-in-law, I came to appreciate what a gift it is to have people in your corner who nurture, support and champion you without hesitation, even if you sometimes lose your cool over misplaced keys.
So, here’s my challenge to you. The next time you encounter someone challenging or frustrating, incomprehensible or impenetrable, ask yourself, what’s missing from this picture? It’s possible the image you have of this person is too tightly focused in on their faults, leaving out key details, like their background or your common ground.
We make judgements based on the information available to us. It’s possible that the more you learn about someone, the more convinced you’ll become that they’re terrible and you want nothing to do with them. That’s OK. At least you’ll have done your due diligence, gathered enough data to make an informed decision, and can be at peace with your decision.
This exercise isn’t about liking or letting in everyone you meet, especially those that have or might hurt you. This exercise is about learning to expand your field of vision, to create space for people to surprise you and for you to surprise yourself.