It’s Not You, It’s Me

Years ago, not long after I’d moved to Los Angeles, I took over the regular classes of a very popular teacher at a very busy gym in West Hollywood. The other teacher had moved back east, and I knew a lot of his students were bummed out, so I went in understanding I’d have my work cut out for me. After a few weeks of dealing with that understandable “I’m-not-sure-I’m-gonna-like-this” energy, things were good and the vibe in the room was awesome. We were having fun, people were focusing and breathing and sweating and laughing. We had a good thing going. Except for this one guy. He always stood in the same place at the front of the room, and he was there like clockwork, three times a week, but he was hostile to me, frequently shot me dirty looks in class, and often shook his head at something I’d said. Sometimes he’d even roll his eyes. I wanted to talk to him about it, but he always arrived right before class, and took off right after. I figured he was there because it was the only time-slot that worked in his schedule.

Several months went by this way. I’d grown to accept that he didn’t like me for whatever reason, but he must like the class enough to deal with it, and then one day we bumped into each other outside the gym and I said hi. We had a short conversation on the way up to class, and although he was guarded, I was surprised that he was willing to talk at all. It was the first time I sensed vulnerability underneath the layers of aggression, and it gave me a feeling of hope. He started showing up a little earlier, and he didn’t fly right out the door after class anymore. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, before or after class, I’d say hi and chat for a few. He started talking to some of the other regulars, too. I grew to learn he was a screenwriter who spent most of his time alone with his laptop. One day he stayed after class, and when everyone had left he asked if I’d meet him to go for a walk up Runyon Canyon. It felt meaningful to me, like it had taken him a lot to ask, so I took my dog and met him there a few days later. We walked and talked for three hours. I learned a lot about his background, struggles he’d been facing, his familial history which was painful, and his successful battle against addiction.

Somewhere along the hike I started laughing and shaking my head. I told him I’d been convinced he pretty much detested me for the better part of the last year. His mouth fell open, and he told me taking class was the one thing that had gotten him through, that he’d been closed for years, and he was finally starting to feel open again. I told him I’d been thrown off by the dirty looks and head shaking, and he said he’d been angry with himself, that a lot of the things I’d been saying really resonated with him, and he’d been shaking his head at himself, not me. He looked at me the way he did because he felt like I was holding a giant mirror up to his face while keeping his feet to the flame, but he didn’t mean for it to seem like he was feeling angry or aggressive. Surprised was more like it. Surprised like when you pick up a drink thinking it’s tea, only to find out it’s apple cider vinegar.

I learned so much from this experience. I’d created an entire story in my head that wasn’t even close to reality. I’d interpreted his behavior through my own lens. He followed me all over L.A. to take class. When I left the gym in West Hollywood and moved all my classes to Santa Monica, he drove down five times a week without batting an eye. For awhile, he was between cars and rode his bike back and forth, which is no small feat. Even though he’s since moved away, he’ll surprise me and show up in class once in a blue moon when he’s in town. Big smile, hugs, lots of love. He’s my oldest regular, this guy who couldn’t stand my guts.

I think we do this a lot, we “fill in the blanks”. Someone says something or does something, and we assume it must mean the same thing it would if we said that or did that, but that’s nuts. The only way you’ll ever know for sure where someone is coming from, what’s going on within them, or how they’re feeling, is if you ask. Human beings are such complex, vulnerable, deeply alone creatures in many ways. We spend most of our time with our internal dialogue, interpreting data from the outside world through our own filters and lenses. Lenses which have been shaped and informed by our experiences, by our beliefs, or the things we think we should believe. By things we’ve been taught, and things we’ve come to understand culturally. The lenses are so different, assuming you’re seeing what someone else is seeing is dangerous at best.

When people are in darkness and in pain, they’re going to spread that. Not intentionally, but just because that’s what’s within them at that time. If you cross paths with someone in the midst of painful transformation, it’s likely you’re gonna get some spillover. It’s not personal, except inasmuch as you may have to do some work around it, assuming it’s someone you want in your life. That may mean you need clear boundaries. Honest communication is always key, but writing a story in your head about why things are happening the way they are, and filling in dialogue, motivations and character arcs for you and the other person is really only okay if you’re writing fiction. Otherwise, you only ever know what you’re feeling, and what’s happening for you. We waste a lot of energy responding to imagined slights or aggression we’re creating ourselves. I know so many people who don’t bother having conversations because they “already know what the other person will say.” It takes courage to make yourself vulnerable, to admit you don’t know, to drop the stance where you get to be the victim or the hero or the innocent bystander, and just be you, a human being who has enough work to do just to understand yourself in every moment. Wishing you love, and the strength to ask when you aren’t sure what’s happening,

Ally Hamilton

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