A series of innocuous photos. This family, bright eyed and smiling, arms wrapped around each other in one pose, cheerfully jumping off some concrete steps in another. There were pictures of just the grown siblings, just the grandchildren, the whole group with the grandparents, and with each separate family unit: mom, dad and children.
Undeniable proof in each photo: Smiles. Camaraderie. Friendliness. Joy. Love. Acceptance.
And my heart broke.
Because for me those photos symbolize the complete opposite of love and acceptance. They represent complete failure. They represent a whole lot of hurt. They represent a past I was unwelcome in and a future where it's best to pretend I don't exist.
Ten years ago I decided to take a dating sabbatical for 1 entire year. More than that, I intentionally swore off flirting, handing out my phone number and even taking inventory of eligible men in the room 15-seconds after I arrived. Instead I chose,for the first time in my life, to be present and aware of the moment I was in with the friends I was with.
I'm not going to lie. Those first two months were the hardest. After a string of bad choices I was finally trying to do the right thing; but all I felt was alone and hopeless. I tried desperately not to compare myself to any girl in a seemingly successful relationship and mostly I cried myself to sleep.
I was a single mom of two beautiful girls. I had a decent job. I had fabulous friends. I lived 27 steps away from the shore of the most gorgeous lake in all of Walworth County. My life was good. I didn't need a man.
Before I knew it I was actually enjoying my singleness. I grew in strength. I grew in courage. I grew in independence. I not only knew who I was, I liked who I was.
The 12 months came and went. I didn't see anyone around me worth dating so I continued being happily single. I danced. A lot! I laughed. A lot! I became even more involved in my community. I performed in theater, joined book club and a MOMS group. And I prayed - prayed hard - that when the time was right, God would show me a good man with a good family who would love me the way I deserved to be loved and who I could be proud of.
I was so busy praying for all sorts of romantic notions I forgot to pray for a tough exterior.
Don't get me wrong. They had every right to be concerned for one of their own; especially when he started spending time (and money) on an unknown girl with kids of her own. That's a big responsibility. It's a big risk. And they showed their love and concern by understandably zeroing in on me.
And I accepted that. I sat quiet and respectful through some of the most ridiculous situations I have ever endured thinking that it's always difficult in the beginning and things will soon get better.
Things kept getting worse and worse and, quite frankly, I had absolutely no experience in how to handle the situation. Every time I showed up, I left with more hurt.
So, I stopped showing up.
Apparently, that made things worse. I was suddenly the most vile person on the planet because I didn't want to choose to go stand in their line of fire. He even warned me: If you stop going over there, it's going to get worse.
And boy was he right! I found myself thrust into an insane confrontation at Walmart that was one of the single most bizarre (and physically intimidating) situations of my entire life. I had never seen people act like that, much less been the target of it - the only thing I knew to do was avoid his sister at all cost. I couldn't even begin to imagine what she'd do to me if he hadn't been standing there next to me. Or if my child wasn't with. Or if I hadn't been pregnant.
I stopped going to his ball games because she was there and I was petrified.
I stopped going to the store because I might run into her.
A few weeks after our son was born I sat and listened as my boyfriend uncomfortably and quite awkwardly explained he had to go get photos taken with our son, with his family... but without me.
From the very beginning they felt their son/brother deserved better than me. And they were probably right. Who knows, maybe I held on tighter to him out of a "you can't get rid of me" stubbornness. But I still held out hope: maybe if they would just lessen their anger toward me a bit. Maybe if they would apologize. Maybe if they would try to really get to know me.
But it didn't matter. They weren't about to do any of the sort.
After another incredibly scary public confrontation at the county fair (this time I was surrounded by my parents, my niece, my brother and my two kids) I decided I just couldn't do it anymore. We live in a very small community and it was only a matter of time before I was met on the street alone. If that kind of meanness can come out with witnesses, I didn't want to imagine what would happen if there were none.
Their point had been made. I was not wanted. Nor would I ever be.
I couldn't make people like me. Nor could I make them want to be civil toward me. And I was far too weak and sensitive to keep showing up for more hate.
The thing about knowing you're not accepted, not wanted, not liked or tolerated, even, is that it hurts. It's a hurt that digs deep into the parts of you where whispers sleep, waiting to be awoken.
Who do you think you are?
You are nobody.
Nobody likes you.
People can't even stand the sight of you.
You're not wanted here.
We wish you were dead.
And unless you have a voice of love louder than that of hate, you're doomed.
Sometimes that voice of love comes in the form of a partner, or a sibling, or a friend. Sometimes, even in a stranger on the street.
You are beautiful!
I love how you make me laugh!
Your insight has changed my life!
I am in awe of your strength!
I have never met anyone more compassionate for others!
Your heart for others is contagious!
Thank you for being you!
I am so glad I met you!
I am so honored to have gotten to know you!
I am so blessed to call you my friend!
Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of hearing a loud love voice. Not everyone has that loving partner who can talk over the scorn. There are too many sad mamas who sit alone staring at the posted photos thinking about how they represent a failure, a hope dashed, a loud and clear reminder that they are not welcome and never will be because they were deemed simply not good enough.
So, it's up to us, to the ones who hear the love voice loud and clear to BE the love voice for someone else.
You can never hand out too many compliments. You can never encourage past your quota. You can never love to loud or too hard.
If that's a cute pair of shoes some lady has on, you march right on up and tell her I love your sense of style! Those shoes are fabulous! Because maybe those are the words that will hush up the hate she heard last night.
If that's a nice gesture that lady just did, letting that elderly man in front of her at the checkout, you look her right in the eye while you say that was such a gracious thing you just did! You are a great example to all of us that a little kindness goes a long way. Because maybe those are the words that will shut up the accusations hurled at her during Easter dinner.
And if that was a lot of work the volunteering mama did all by herself because no one else wanted to do it, you square up and make yourself known and tell her that was incredible! I can't imagine how many hours away from your children that took you, here's a gift card so you can go out with your family for dinner together, stress free! You deserve it! Because maybe those are the words that will finally silence the passive-aggressive sentiments she sat through as she tried stop her eyes from welling up with tears.
Because we are all so much more than what the people who don't want us would like us to think. And the voice of love is the one that speaks truth. You have got to believe that.
Maybe if we all spoke love a little louder we'd finally drown out the voice of hate. And maybe we'd all come to realize that there's a heck of a lot more greatness to us than what's represented by a photo posted online.