She was bone-tired, crabby and still eager to please—until a bump on her forehead set her straight.
It was one of the longest trips of my life. On the first leg of the three-plane jaunt, the flight was delayed two hours, leaving me with a mere ten minutes to dash to the second plane. When I arrived at the third airport, two people ran through the security checkpoint, resulting in the airport's being shut down for hours. As I boarded the final plane, a small propper, I hit my forehead so hard that I nearly passed out, acquiring a fist-size bump in the process. The worst part of the trip, however, was that I didn't want to be on it. An acquaintance had asked me to give a reading at her school during an extremely busy time of the year, and to make her happy, I had said yes.
A week before the trip, I called the school to check on the travel arrangements and was told that I was expected to make them myself and would be reimbursed later. I was tempted to book a first-class ticket on a first-rate airline, but because my acquaintance's school was low on funds, I got a discount ticket on the Internet, which sent me on that game of musical flights.
When I finally reached her city, I was hungry and exhausted. Still, I proceeded to make small talk with my hostess on the hour-long car ride to my lodging. She was very cheerful, and between questions ranging from the color of my childhood house to my college English courses, she laid out the next day's heavy schedule of morning assemblies and afternoon classroom visits—which had not been part of our original agreement.
Not wanting to appear disagreeable, I bit my tongue and whispered, "Fine." Meanwhile I could feel the bump on my forehead growing bigger and bigger, like Pinocchio's nose rising after he told a lie.
When I got to the hotel, in order to bury my well-concealed frustration, I consumed a total of 15 chocolate hearts, which had been decoratively placed around the room. The next day, however, the chocolate did nothing to sweeten my disposition or to make the bump on my forehead, which overnight had completely turned black-and-blue, go away. I did the best I could to conceal the swelling with makeup, but by the time I left the hotel room, what I often jokingly refer to as my already wide and ample "four-head" was more like a "five-head." Nevertheless, I addressed the morning assemblies and then trudged through the back-to-back afternoon classes, praying I wouldn't faint from exhaustion or lose my voice.
The truth is, had I really wanted to be on this trip, I would have happily brushed off the consecutive presentations and my aching head as yet another series of challenges to be overcome in my constant book-related travels. However, since I was putting myself through this particular experience more out of obligation than desire, I was feeling doubly abused, both by this person and by myself. There were so many other things I could have been doing. I could have been writing. I could have been sleeping. I could have been lunching with my beloved. I could have been consoling a dear friend who had recently lost her mother. I could have been playing with my niece and nephew. I could have been eating my own chocolate hearts in my own house.
Since I mostly try to follow Gandhi's suggestion to live as if I were going to die tomorrow, I couldn't stop thinking, 'If I die tomorrow, is this the last thing I want to be doing? Pleasing other people while making myself miserable?' I was neither doing these people nor myself a favor by showing up when my heart wasn't in it. They were not getting the real me, the whole me, the true me.
On the plane back, I got a chance to open a book that a friend who knew my tendency to overplease had given me. The book was The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, by an 18th-century novelist and letter writer. My friend had highlighted several sections, and in a rare moment's respite from the stomach-churning turbulence, I spotted these lines: "This perpetual round of constrained civilities to persons quite indifferent to us, is the most provoking and tiresome thing in the world. É 'Tis a most shocking and unworthy way of spending our precious and irrecoverable time."
I now have that passage and the remnants of the bump on my forehead to remind me. The next time I do anything, large or small, I will have to be almost thrilled to death about it. Otherwise I will stay home and eat my own chocolates.
Printed from Oprah.com on Friday, December 6, 2013