A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed Sherri Shepherd, one of the hosts on "The View", and the woman behind the force that is "Angie" on "30 Rock". I'm always happy to interview a celebrity, but I certainly didn't expect to take away the profound message Sherri had to offer that day...in fact, I thought I was meant to be talking to her about toothbrushes. (we did that, but the discussion was brief - in short, electric is better)
Amidst our discussion about her life, her child, her work and her goals, we addressed one of the most important themes young women, and ambitious people in general, seem to overlook in life...until it is too late. Sherri told me that the secret to balance in her very hectic life has been embracing the word "no". Considering the variety in her professional life, I had expected her to say the very opposite - that the secret to life fulfillment comes from frequent and even reckless use of the word "yes"!
I expressed as much to Sherri, and she shook her head sympathetically. She told me that her relationship with the word "no" had developed over time and that she hadn't always been so keen to use it - much like myself. But, with prioritizing, comes the necessity for reclamation of one's self, and as we get older and take on more and more and more....we begin to come to terms with the fact that "yes" could be the death of us while "no" could literally save us from being crushed by the world's demands.
When I was in the 8th grade, my best friend, Amy, and I developed a whole new alphabet which we used to write and pass notes in Senora Stout's Spanish class. I remember well one day conveying to Amy via a variety of combined symbols that I was feeling a bit taken advantage of by a friend who was struggling in another class. We had a group project, and I had finally begun to understand that her constant requests for help were really translating to me doing all the work and her watching me, filing her nails and talking on the phone to boys. The situation had me frustrated and depressed.
In code, Amy offered up the following nugget of wisdom which has haunted me every since. "Holley," she said in smiley faces, dots, squiggles and squares, "you are a people-pleaser. I know that because I'm one too. And, it isn't a good thing." At the bottom of her response, she drew a little person with long hair and converse tennis shoes (my tiny likeness) holding hands with a curly-haired figure in khakis (her), both of them looking up at a giant stop sign which read "Stop Pleasing People!" I kept that note for a very long time, and when I felt like I was being manipulated, I would look at it, sigh, and usually, do whatever was being asked of me anyway...just in full knowledge that I was the only one to blame for my exhaustion and/or disappointment.
As I progressed through college and into the working world, I began to think that maybe Amy had been wrong - that maybe being a people-pleaser was the way to advance in life. I mean, after all, when you are very helpful, people like you, right? And, they respect you for your efforts? And, they ask you to do more things and more things and.....wait a gosh-darn second.... The previous revelation took thirty-one years to manifest. Despite Amy's foreshadowing, I allowed my life to become a piece-meal mosaic of constant attention to the needs and wants of other people. Shoot, I thought I was helping myself in the process, and maybe I was to some extent. I have certainly developed a wide variety of skills as a result, but there has always been a tiny little piece of me...perhaps that little drawing staring up at that giant stop sign....crying out from the recesses of my brain that what I am giving up might be more valuable than what I'm gaining.
A few nights ago, I watched an incredible documentary about Bill Cunningham, the 82 year-old New York Times photographer who gathers snapshots of people on the streets of New York, then dissects them into sub-sections that represent fashion trends as perceived by the everyday guy or gal. You can find his pictorial in the Sunday edition and online. There's even a groovy little narration that he does himself, over an animation of his work. It's pretty fabulous.
Anyway, the point of this story is that this documentary has been reviewed farily consistently as a sweet little film about a man who loves what he does more than anything else in the world and has given up much of what we all value in life to pursue it. Okay - I'll buy that Bill Cunningham loves his job. It is more than a little bit obvious that he not only has a keen eye for fashion but a genuine joy over observing how modern women and men pick and choose they ways in which they will bring the catwalks to the alley ways. The key word here is "observing". Bill Cunningham has spent his entire eighty-two years...watching. Only recently did Mr. Cunningham leave his tiny room in Carnegie Hall where he has lived for the better part of his life, to become a resident in a real apartment complex, with a bathroom that isn't in a public hall way. He eats as inexpensively as possible...wears the same blue jacket day in and day out...and still shoots on bonified film. He is well-known by celebrated designers and fashion icons. He has received awards for his contributions to fashion from the highest ranks of the industry...awards he has accepted in his blue jacket. He spent a little time in the forties designing hats, but when the United States Military called, he shifted his course and never returned to his original calling.
If a viewer were to watch only the first three-quarters of the Bill Cunningham documentary, he or she would likely derive the same conclusion mentioned earlier: cute movie; this guy likes his job. But, when the interviewer actually musters up the courage to ask Bill a series of difficult questions regarding his romantic life and his take on religion, the truth creeps out like a fine eau de parfum several hours after its original spritz.
Bill Cunningham let "pleasing" take over his life. He found a way to derive joy from the industry in which he should have been a participant rather than a mere historian, where with his eye...his appreciation for all things beautiful...and his genuine euphoria over the principle of human expression through fashion...Bill Cunningham might have been iconic as a creator. Instead, the oppression of a family who never understood him and a society that dictated his lifestyle choices, boxed up his exuberance and hid it behind a lens and a shutter.
I laid in bed after my brief encounter with Mr. Cunningham by way of my Netflix account and thought about how this incredible man's life might have been different if he had also been able to embrace the word "no".
No - I will not be bullied by my family's assessment of my chosen field.
No - I will not abandon my dreams in favor of someone else's vision.
No - I will not hide myself away behind the fabulousness of others.
No - I will not concede my place in this world based on the restrictions handed to me by a cold and closed-minded generation.
No - I won't let anyone else tell me who I should or should not love.
I have no doubt that Bill Cunningham has found contentment through his work. If we all loved our professions as much, the word "mediocrity" would not even exist. But, my gracious, the potential that is stored up in his apartment full of file cabinets....the inspiration that he could have used to buoy up his own designs...there could have been much more for him, but like so many of us, he did not see fit to claim himself for himself. And, maybe....just maybe....Mr. Cunningham might have been willing to give up some of his professional acclaim to have a true, honest love affair, had the notion pleased his family and society in general. My heart aches for his dedication to the expectations of those for whom he cared - maybe too much.
Perhaps not all of our "no's" need to be quite so grand as Bill's might have been. Maybe a "no" is simply issued in response to a perceived obligation which will diminish time with family or friends. Maybe tomorrow's "no" will be in reference to what might seem like an opportunity....but under the light of serious scrutiny, reveals itself as a manipulation. Maybe next week's "no" really will be the passing over of an opportunity for another one...or simply...for rest. Sometimes we issue a "no" to someone we barely know...sometimes we have to say "no" to the people we love the most. One way or another, a "no" to someone else can quite often mean a "yes" to ourselves, and, while a people-pleaser like myself might find that selfish at first glance, the truth is - it can be the difference between survival and happiness.
So once said the wisest twelve year-old I've ever encountered. Amy, wherever you are these days, I hope you are "no-ing" up a storm and living an uproariously happy life. Living...not just watching.