The woman seemed tired, but that wasn’t surprising. It was after midnight and she was at work as a cashier at Walmart. There weren’t many people in the store. It was mostly employees stocking shelves and there were a very few late-night shoppers like me.
When I spoke to her, she didn’t look at me at first. She just responded briefly and went about her work of checking me out. It quickly occurred to me that maybe she wasn’t tired — at least not physically. Maybe she just didn’t care anymore.
She was about 45. She seemed to have forgotten how to smile. She did seem tired, but as I watched her, I thought it seemed more as though she was tired of life. Since there was nobody behind me, I tried to find out her story. It was quickly obvious that she didn’t mind talking. She simply didn’t care about much anymore.
She’s from a tiny town in southern Ohio that I’d never heard of. She said it was near Kentucky and she’s never lived anywhere else. She’s in this area briefly. The youngest of her three daughters ran off with a man and he abandoned her in Birmingham after she got pregnant.
So this mother has come down here to help her pregnant daughter figure out what to do. The daughter doesn’t want to return to their little town, but she can’t make it on her own. The mother is here because she wants to talk her daughter into coming home with her, but she has to work a job in the meantime, because she said they’re broke.
This woman’s face haunts me. I should be asleep right now, but I can’t sleep. I just keep seeing that face — and thinking about how much our faces reveal about our stories and about what we believe about ourselves.
I was fairly young when I first noticed that most rural people had a hard look to their faces. It wasn’t universally true, but I saw it often enough that I learned to associate a certain look with low income or rural life.
I saw that look when I first started working at newspapers. When I had to drive out to rural areas and talk with people who lived there, I kept seeing that look. The “city folks” who I normally dealt with — even in our small city of about 12,000 — didn’t have the look. I never figured out how people’s faces could tell so much.
I have a theory about it, but I can’t prove anything. I suspect that when a person believes certain things about his or her life, that becomes his or her story — and what the person believes ends up reflected on his or her face.
If you believe you’re smart and educated and resourceful, your belief is going to be reflected in your face. You’re going to carry yourself differently. You’re going to dress differently. And the things you believe somehow affect the set of your face, so your muscles will fall into the pattern of reflecting a look of affluence and confidence.
If you believe that you’re a victim and that nothing you do is going to turn out right, you’re going to learn to stop caring. You’re not going to take care of yourself in the same way. Your standards about the people you allow into your life will fall. And as you have less confidence and less hope, the muscles of your face will be set in a pattern — the same one I saw on this woman’s face tonight.
At one point, she even expressed her story, in a roundabout way, while she was talking about having to work here to earn enough money to survive and then talk her daughter into going back to Ohio before the baby is born.
“We ain’t never had anything,” she said with no emotion, “and we never will.”
That was her story — and everything about her life and her face and the way she carried herself screamed that story. And because she believes that story, it has become her destiny. Her life isn’t going to change.
In an interview I heard Thursday night, a psychologist quoted writer Mo Willems, who wrote in one of his books, “If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.”
The entire point of the interview I was listening to was that we control our lives through our stories — the interpretations we give to the facts of our lives. If you find yourself somewhere you don’t want to be, the first thing to do is to change the story of your life. Until you change your story — which is really just an interpretation of all that’s happened to you — nothing can change for you.
If you believe life has infinite possibilities, you’re going to keep pushing forward to find them. If you believe you’re stuck where you are — for whatever reason — you’re going to be stuck until you find a way to change what you believe about it.
It’s easy for me to see how this applies to people such as the woman in the store tonight, but it’s harder to apply to myself. You and I aren’t like her. We’re far smarter and more educated and sophisticated. Our stories are reasonable and rational. We’re not limiting ourselves. That’s what we tell ourselves anyway.
So if this doesn’t apply to us, why do we sometimes notice we’re putting ourselves back into positions where we’ve been before? Why do we swear we will never let a particular type of person into our lives again, but we end up doing something similar without even noticing until it’s too late.
I’ve realized lately that I’ve allowed a narcissist to become a major figure in my life. I thought I was prepared to avoid such people now and avoid them, but I somehow put myself into a position of needing this one. How did I do that? I’m having to think a lot about that and it’s not something I’m happy to admit.
You’re almost certainly no different. You know things need to change in your life. Or maybe you find yourself falling into a pattern you had sworn you wouldn’t follow again. Why? You have some belief about yourself and your story that’s leading you to make decisions you say you don’t want.
Nothing will change for you until you change your story.
I’ve become aware — again — in the last few days that some things about my story still need to change.
I hope that I’m self-aware enough — and that you’re self-aware enough — for us to change our lives in ways they need to change. I’m hopeful about myself, but I might be fooling myself.
I doubt the woman from the store tonight will ever change. She knows her story. She’s comfortable being that person. It’s probably all she knows how to be. She’s tired of life — and nothing will ever get any better for her — all because of her limiting beliefs.
Note: The photo above is of a real mother of three from a poor town in Appalachia. Her look reminds me of what I saw in the face of the woman tonight.