Monday, October 25, 2010

Act Like a Lady

After a couple of weeks feeling alternatively angry, helpless, hopeless, vindictive, impotent and frustrated--sometimes all at once--about a wrong done to a colleague that has cost him dearly, personally and professionally, I consulted a friend who knew the situation and whose Christian counsel I value.  What, I asked him, is my response?  I know it's forgiveness and mercy and justice all rolled into one, but what does that look like on the ground?  What do I do in this situation?

His answer?  You're a lady.  Act like a lady.

I was taken aback .  This particular, painful situation tests my faith and my temper in equal portions and I have spent a good deal of time and gastric mucosa trying to decide which particular weapon to take out and use on the offenders.  I've had such difficulty with the whole situation and my pyrotechnic response has been so extreme that it has sent me to the confessional not once, but twice because I just don't know where the lines are in this particular situation and I keep trampling them.  

He makes it sound so simple.   You're a lady, the man says.

I haven’t heard that term for years in relationship to me.  A tough customer, yes.  A hardheaded lawyer, yes.  Occasionally, far less flattering but equally accurate characterizations of me in my professional life.  But never, never a lady.  So much has that fallen out of use in my world that I have even ceased to think of myself in those terms.  His statement stopped me dead in my mental tracks and  I had to hurry to catch up with what he was saying a moment or two later.  A lady? 

It’s a term that modern society tends to view as slightly sketchy, if not outright pitiable, largely as a result of militant, women-are-just-the-same-as-men feminism.   When I was a girl (another term out of vogue), we all aspired to be ladies, and we knew that it was a way of acting, not a perquisite of economic class.  We all knew poor women who were ladies, and rich women who were not, and if we were lucky enough to have a lady for a mother (I was), she made that fact abundantly clear.  This was, after all, the South, where the tradition of the lady was, if not invented at least raised to an art form.  To be a lady was an achievement of will and training accessible to anyone who would take the time and endure a little gentle, insistent discipline at the hands of......a lady.

The feminist movement has no use for ladies.  In their calculus, ladies are weak, useless, manipulated, subordinate, exploited, and unhappy, though they frequently don't have the sense to know it.  Far better, goes the mantra, to recognize that there are no differences between men and women.  Those who think there are have fallen prey to the sinister masculine plot to oppress womankind.  It was hard for me to tell whether the sense of shame or the sense of glorious awakening that swept over me at my friend's comment prevailed.  A lady?

I spend a lot of my time these days, and have for along time, in a world that demands virtual pugilism, and my native temper and skill with the verbal broadsword makes me a force to contend with.  People call me--no exaggeration--"Sir" to my face with some regularity.  (I choose to believe that this is a reflection of my strong personality and no-nonsense attitude.)  I am a very competent actor on a stage where aggression and power are the order of the day; where I am regularly counseled to remember that there's nothing personal in business--and to keep my softer emotions out of it, thank you very much.

That's a good way to make a career in the often bare-knuckle world of corporate America and medical law, but it's  no way for a lady to act.  My friend's offhand comment brought me up short.  I realized that I had fallen, unwary, into the trap of the world that says that action-reaction, hit, hit back, I'll get you before you get me is the only way of doing things.  The ladies of my youth taught me otherwise, and God and my good friend help me, I very nearly forgot the lesson.

Ask any Southerner what characterizes a lady and one word will always surface: gracious.  It doesn't matter the circumstances, a lady is gracious.  Break her grandmother's wedding platter, and she'll brush it off rather than make you feel guilt that you just destroyed a family heirloom .  (A lady in name only will later fume to others about your gaffe, but a real lady will never talk about again, to you or anyone else).  

A lady will find the kindest way to say the most disagreeable thing, but say it she will, especially if you've done something to injure one of her nearest and dearest.  

 If you happen to be the crazy relative of a Southern lady, you don't have to worry about being locked up in the attic.  You'll be on the sofa in the parlor with all the guests, loved and indulged, because, after all, we all do the best we can with what God sends us.  Even if, bless their hearts, some of us didn't get a fair enough shake in life.  

And if you happen to be the sworn enemy of a Southern lady (these are few, and generally result from repeated indignities the offender has perpetrated on the family of the lady in question), expect to be treated with excruciating civility unless and until you yourself are in an hour of need, at which time a casserole and perhaps someone sent along to help with the housecleaning will arrive on your doorstep.  Animosity only goes so far, and one measure of a lady is how she responds to need in others without regard for herself.

Some people view this as a duplicitous way of life.  Better, they say, to hammer out differences on the battle field, let the better person (it might not be a man, after all) win, and to the victor the spoils.  The Southern lady knows better.  She knows that the way we act trains the way we believe; the rhythms of daily life shape the heart.  She knows vengeance wreaks havoc and love really can conquer all, given enough time and the unbending will of a woman who simply refuses to let love out of her sight.  She knows that love is itself an act of will and a response to grace, not just the fickle tide of emotion.  She knows that there is great power in being gracious.

And she knows that even when there is a need for someone to do battle with the forces of evil, there's also a need for a place a peace and calm.  However essential the battles of life,  there must also be a place of retreat  The ladies are in charge of that.

Gracious.  Somewhere along the line, I forgot all about gracious in the contest to be right and to win and to never, ever be taken advantage of or be maligned.   I overlooked how important and how powerful grace--graciousness--is.  Truly powerful.  Life-changing powerful.  Redemptive powerful.  

Now that I am Catholic, I have the best of all possible models, to put to lie the idea that ladies are somehow ineffectual when times are hard and life is tough and people are contentious.  Our Lady.  THE Lady.  The dispenser of all grace and of all graciousness.  Better by far than even the best of my childhood role models.

So how am I to act?  

I am to act graciously, God willing, understanding that indignity and unfairness and injustice are all  part of life, and I will bear it graciously, because Our Lady gives me grace.  I am to act understanding that indignity never lasts, that pain is never permanent and that at the foot of the cross is the path of healing, even for those who hammered in the nails, because Our Lady and her Son taught me so.  I am to act lovingly, understanding that we are, after all, all brothers and sisters, and our Mother wishes us to come to terms and live in peace.  She knows, and I know, that sometimes achieving that peace is a hard, painful process that a lady must endure for the sake of her family.  

You're a lady.   Act like a lady.  So I am meant to be!  Please God, so I will.

1 comment:

  1. Ugh! Thanks for giving me a laugh this evening, Barb, I really needed one. "Me, a lady? Never, never, a lady." Ha, ha, ha, ha.

    Sir, you should stop using a ghost writer for you blog; that is not polite.

    Barb, I have read every word you have written here, if they are not the words of a loving, caring lady, then you are one seriously confused individual. Your real self is coming out in words, but your brain believes something different?

    What you must do in your job to accomplish it does not define who you are; your actions toward you neighbor does, and I see a person who lives out, or tries to live out, the commandment to love their neighbor --- however unlovable they may be at times.

    When I negotiated contracts for Ford, I sometimes acted in ways I'd never act to my neighbor or my family, but it had to be done to do justice to the company that paid me. And when I was a young man working on the railroad I learned I had to cuss like I never knew ANYONE cussed, just to be taken seriously. That wasn't me either, not really.

    Who you are is how you act and feel toward your neighbor. I see a lady, and I am a very discerning individual.