From the time I was a young boy all the way through my most of my thirties I tended not to fit in with most of my peers. I was introverted, socially awkward, lacked confidence, and often felt shunned and ridiculed by my peers, classmates, and co-workers.
This often made interacting with people painful.
I often played or read alone in my room, and dreaded most group activities.
Some of those shadows remain to this day, though as I have changed, the sunlight-to-shadow ratio has improved immensely. But I still reflexively find myself hesitating to do things in groups even when I know that the group loves me.
I’ve learned that shadows almost never completely go away, and can negatively impact my attitude, life, and decisions, but the light of understanding, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, and gratitude—for everyone including myself—is the best antidote for and protection against even my darkest shadows.
One time when I was probably about 9 or 10 I accepted an invitation to go on a trip to the mountains to play in the snow with a large group of children, most of whom I didn’t know. I was one of the smallest and youngest. The older kids taunted and teased, and then shunned me. I was lonely and feeling bad about myself and angry at the others.
To make matters worse, I was very scrawny (people kept describing me as gaunt). I was a city kid who lived in a temperate climate and wasn’t used to snow or cold weather. I came from a family of seven. We couldn’t afford fancy snow gear–or any snow gear for that matter.
For example, I didn’t have water and snow-repellent shoes or overshoes. I think I only had 3 pairs of shoes: “sneakers”, dress shoes, and slippers. So I went with the sneakers.
Before I left for the trip, mom tried to help me to keep my feet warm and dry by having me wear two pairs of cotton socks–we didn’t have wool or thick cold-weather socks–and she gave to me some thin plastic bread wrappers to put over the socks before I put my shoes on to try to keep my feet and socks from getting soaked. She did her best with what she had.
Unfortunately, between my complete lack of body fat and of being conditioned to cold weather, and with the outfit I had on that not only didn’t help me to stay dry or warm but did invite ridicule from the older boys, I was very quickly wracked with uncontrollable full-body shivering and felt absolutely miserable and alone on a snowy hilltop crowded with people having fun.
At the bottom of the snow hill a parent volunteer had opened the tailgate of his station wagon and had made a big pot of cocoa for us. He was a stranger to me. I shook like a leaf in windstorm as I stumbled over to him for some hot chocolate. I must have been a picture of abject misery.
He handed a cup of the of the wonderfully-smelling steaming elixir to me. I thanked him, and began to turn away. He said voice, “Excuse me son.” I turned back toward him, concerned that maybe I’d done something wrong. He continued in a kind voice, “I’ve noticed that you are always so polite. Many boys aren’t. I appreciate that you are. Thank you.”
It was a simple acknowledgement, but at that moment it meant the world to me. Where there had only been freezing coldness a moment before, this kind stranger had brought warmth. And remarkably, even now as I remember his kindness 45 years later, it still warms my heart.
Thank you to that wonderful person and to everyone who brings kindness and a smile to those badly in need of both. My world is a brighter place with you in it.