It was a lively family party, in preparation for a wedding weekend, and the house was full of family members from all over the country — some of whom I hadn’t even met yet or at least hadn’t seen in years.
We exchanged hugs over and over as new people arrived to help celebrate. The kids ran around gleefully outside while the adults loaded up their plates and caught up.
I kept seeing a little boy pass by, probably around 10 or 11 years old. He was a big kid, not much shorter than I am, definitely athletic. And while the other kids paid no attention to my daughter and I, this boy would hesitate at her, wrinkle his nose slightly and furrow his brow a bit, as if he was trying to figure out Brenna’s appearance and wasn’t sure what to make of her severe skin disorder, which looks like a bad sunburn covering her entire body.
Finally, by the fourth time he passed by, he slowed down until he was standing right in front of her. And I admit, I braced myself for what I thought was coming: a question perhaps, or maybe even a not-so-nice comment about her appearance. I felt a little swelling of annoyance start build up in me, threatening to spill over into upset.
But then he knelt down so that he was eye level with Brenna. And this tough-looking preteen all but cooed at her: “Well, aren’t you just the prettiest little girl? I love your pretty dress! Are you having fun?”
Oh, my heart.
My expectation of needing to come to Brenna’s defense melted away in an instant. I was absolutely, completely wrong about this child’s intent — and joyfully so.
Defensiveness can turn our insides ugly fast. Defensiveness prepares us for a battle before an actual battle cry. It finds us ready to fight, ready to defend, ready to hurt in return for the hurt we are anticipating or experiencing.
Maybe most importantly, defensiveness turns off our ability to listen well. We don’t care what someone else is saying, what they’re feeling, or where they’re coming from because we’re already upset, ready to fight back at the perceived offense. Fight or flight has kicked in, and it doesn’t matter if the threat is real or in our minds.
Pushing back against my tendency to rush to the line of defense turns my focus outward, instead of inward. It has helped me to try listening beyond what others are saying in order to better understand what they are feeling. When I remind myself that I am not necessarily under attack when someone is expressing a differing view or asking for more information, I can usually see that person is hurt or proud or many other feelings that actually have very little to do with me.
I won’t pretend it doesn’t hurt when a rude comment is made or another child uses an unkind adjective to describe our sweet girl. But we have been surprised by the good of people too, again and again. And just as we don’t want anyone to make assumptions about Brenna’s story, our story, we try not to make negative assumptions about the reactions of others before giving them a chance.
On most days, I would love to experience an outing without pointing or questions, because in all honesty, it does begin to feel intrusive. While I want others to be educated about Brenna’s skin condition, called harlequin ichthyosis, what I desire even more is for people to squelch their own curiosity and offer a hello or tell me how cute my kids are. I can only dream of a world where we could all learn to extend a little more kindness instead of judgment — a world in which we stood more assured and didn’t have need to question others or ourselves.
Defensiveness can lead to a growing anger and resentment deep within us. But through offering grace, kindness can be mustered up. And I’ve found that when kindness is extended instead of anger, it builds self-confidence and contentment, and even connection.
A while ago, there was an older gentleman behind us at McDonald’s, and he started speaking to me before I was paying attention. I caught something about “keeping a hat on” Brenna, and my face started to get hotter, thinking it was the beginning of a lecture about keeping a hat on my kid when out in the sun so that she doesn’t get sunburned (not the first time this has happened.)
“What was that?” I asked him, pushing back against my rising defensiveness.
He repeated his comment: “I was just saying that I don’t know how you get her to keep a hat on. My grandkids just pull them right off!”
He smiled at us. “She’s sure a cutie.”