The meanest thing anyone’s ever said to me

Actually it’s the meanest thing anyone’s ever said to me that I can remember. I’m sure other people have said other mean things to or about me. But this one has stuck with me since it happened in 1995. In fact, I think about it quite often. Let me explain.

One day in December 1994, after working on my dissertation at New York University for two years and having made little progress, I came to two important realizations. I’d been growing increasingly unhappy during those two years, struggling to research and write about a topic that was challenging and really interested me, but never seemed to get anywhere. As many dissertation writers do, my struggles made me question my abilities. (Have I mentioned that I do sometimes suffer from imposter syndrome?) Over time, although I logged very long hours in the library, I became less and less productive, and more and more unhappy. Miserable, really.

Everything came to a head that December day when it suddenly occurred to me that: 1. I wasn’t a dummy at all, and 2. I’d simply picked the wrong profession. I wasn’t failing in the intellectual pursuit; instead it was the process that wasn’t working for me. The long, lonely hours, the solitary work, the physical immobility of the research and writing were all wearing on me. As well, I’d been teaching French language courses every semester for years to put myself through graduate school, and the thought of doing that several more decades made me even more miserable. That day, I finally realized that I needed to find a profession better suited to my personality, my preferred work style, and my physical and emotional needs.

I asked a librarian friend what librarians did every day. He told me all about it and also answered three crucial questions: 1. Does a librarian sit down all day or would I be able to walk around? 2. Does a librarian work alone all day or would I be able to collaborate with others? 3. Would I ever have to wear pantyhose? The answers were: you can walk around, you definitely collaborate, and you don’t ever have to wear hose. I knew this was the profession for me.

Within a few months I had left the PhD program and gotten a job as a para-professional at NYU’s library. I was thrilled with what I was learning, the great variety of work, the collaborations, my intelligent colleagues, and the more holistic approach to thinking about the academy and advancing research. For the first time in years, I was so happy in my professional surroundings and saw a real future for myself. A good number of my former classmates stopped by the reference desk to congratulate me, or to tell me how brave I was for making the decision to leave the PhD program and find a line of work with better job prospects. They were happy for me.

All except one. This student was famous in the department for being competitive, making snide remarks about others, and making fun of them. This student’s withering sarcasm, their need to cut others down, was painful to witness. I’d never before met anyone who took such pleasure in intellectually demeaning others. I steered clear as best I could.

A month or so into my new gig at the library, this person showed up at the reference desk one day and with a wicked smile on their face said to me:

I always knew you wouldn’t make it.”

I knew exactly what that remark was supposed to do; I understood all too well the spirit in which it was intended. At the time I laughed it off because it wasn’t at all surprising coming from this person. And because, I had, in fact, made it just fine. I was the happiest I’d been in a long time, with no regrets and a great future ahead of me.

But I’ve never forgotten their remark. Not because of how it made me feel about myself, but because of what it said about them. What kind of kind of person makes a sport of belittling others, preying on their weaknesses, pushing on the sore spots, delighting in causing them pain? And worse yet, bringing other people along for the ride, getting them to laugh at such snide, cutting remarks. It’s cruel, really. And that cruelty is infectious.

We need to guard ourselves against this everyday cruelty, which often sneaks in through the kind of snarky humor we all enjoy. It desensitizes us through habituation: first we disagree with and scoff at someone’s ideas, then we mock his appearance, and soon enough we’re making fun of his young child. We’re far from where we started, but it was just so tempting to punch down at such an easy target.

Like this person who was so intent on humiliating me, what and how we choose to criticize says more about our own character and values than it does about our intended target. Let’s do better.