Author Archives: gwendungy

Compartmentalizing Disrespect

By title and official authority, you’re the leader of the group. You work hard to carry out your responsibilities and you show respect to every member of the team.

You knew from the beginning that in this very hierarchical environment there was one person who, though below you on the organizational chart, would hold more sway or influence than you. You puzzled why this person had not gone for the position for which you now held because their desire for power and influence was apparent.

Nevertheless, this person who technically held the subordinate position to you also had authority over a segment of the population and had the ability to make work life comfortable or uncomfortable for a sizable number of people. They had an uncanny knack for influencing others to like or dislike who or what they deemed worthy or unworthy based solely on their personal sense of justice and fairness.

You refer to the person just described as Judge Everybody.

You worked with some of your team members to plan the annual retreat. There were to be serious and fun exercises, good snacks, and a very special lunch. It was during the lunch that the “real leader” of the group was publicly anointed.

During the exercises, Merry Merry, a charismatic sycophant, gleefully insisted that Judge Everybody be the leader for every activity. Others gave you side-eye glances to see how you were reacting to this enthusiastic robing of Judge Everybody.

It was during the lunch that Merry Merry made a proclamation that Judge Everybody was the “REAL Leader.” Merry Merry, who was your friend when not in the company of Judge Everybody, would not make eye contact with you.

At the time when all were to be seated for this special lunch, it appeared that your team was waiting to see where Judge Everybody would sit before finding a seat as close to Judge Everybody as possible. You deliberately left seats between you and Judge Everybody in order to give more space for those who wanted a closer seat to better inhale the aura of Judge Everybody. A couple of brave souls sat near you. You think to yourself, is my faith strong enough to get me through this gauntlet of disrespect and humiliation?

Fortunately, you have become an expert at compartmentalizing. You use this defense mechanism to put the feelings of humiliation in a box for later reflection. You know that you become impervious to slights by immersing yourself in work. Work is your refuge. It helps you trick your mind into denying reality by reframing the experience with a palatable interpretation.

You know that you’re not the only one who has struggled to hold strong in such an environment. You understand that designated leaders who have reluctant followers have to separate and insulate themselves mentally and emotionally by compartmentalizing. You accept that though you hold fast, wounds of humiliation never heal. They are merely rationalized and compartmentalized.

Watering the Weeds in the Garden of Life

Guest post by Charlotte Loveless

I watched as my neighbor’s 5-year-old son was trying to help water flowers in my flower bed. As with any 5-year-old, he was at least somewhat interested in playing in the water and had to be told he was helping.

Standing nearby, his mother cautioned, “Not there, those are probably weeds.”

I responded that I believed that they were wild violets. “Sometimes we have to water the weeds to get to the flowers,” I said. “Sometimes those weeds spring forth as beautiful wildflowers.”

Later, after much contemplation, I compared the weeds to people in my life. Sometimes people come into our lives, often well-intentioned, needing to be heard, to share ideas, to get opinions, to find a safe place, and for many unknown, untold reasons Sometimes we wonder why and how, and consider that we might not have chosen them as friend. Maybe its language they use; maybe it’s a checkered past or just not my choice, but there they are.

Don’t despair. They could be that hidden hybrid plant that has been tossed around by life and not allowed sunshine and water. Maybe they have the possibility of a beautiful wildflower, given the attention of water, food, and sunshine.

Thinking of life as a garden gives us perspective, but seeking perfection in our gardens separates us from many unknown, untold stories, and the potential for many hidden, unexpected, beautiful blooms.

Sometimes we water the weeds to get to the flowers.

Don’t undervalue what appear to be weeds in the garden of your life.


Charlotte Loveless is a former coordinator of services for students with special needs. Now retired, she enjoys the arts, painting nature, and occasionally expressing thoughts in writing. She is a long-time friend of Gwen’s.

West Side Story

In 1961, I was sixteen and in the first semester of my senior year of high school. It was around Thanksgiving.

West Side Story

My boyfriend met all the characteristics on my teen-aged girl’s checklist. He was handsome, he was a gentleman, he had a good job, he had a 1957 two-toned Chevy, and he took me downtown to see West Side Story.  

I was in tears at the end of the movie.

On the drive home, I wanted to talk about all the things that made the movie so great. My perfect boyfriend was quiet. I pressured him to tell me what he thought about the movie. Reluctantly, he said he didn’t see what the fuss was all about, and he thought some parts of it were silly. Silly!

I was devastated by his response. At that point, I told him that I couldn’t continue seeing him if our views were that different about West Side Story.

A Freezer Full of Meat

I suspect that around this time a lot of folks are doing their annual resolutions about diets following the feasts of November and December. These people are the blessed ones because so many all over the world have no food at all. I’ve written about how our family sometimes wondered where the next meal was coming from, but we were the lucky ones because the next meal always came. We even had a huge stand-up freezer so large that it didn’t fit into the kitchen. One would think that a family with meager means would not have much use for a food freezer. That was true for us. We did not have much use for a food freezer.

Why did we have a freezer for food? What some people might not know is that poor people who don’t have a lot of money and don’t have a lot of options where they can shop rely on door-to-door salespeople for just about everything they buy. In my experience, if the salesman (always a man) gained the trust and favor of some members or just one member of a family, he could sell anything. He would promise that a given item would be easy to afford by paying only a few dollars over time.

One such salesman was Mr. Gardner. Though my mother and grandmother claimed that they didn’t like him, they kept buying whatever he was selling. I used to say that I hated him because I could see how he was suckering them and a lot of other families into buying second- and third-rate products. He would encourage people to get this junk on credit only to begin hounding them to pay at times when they had no money.

I would beg my grandmother and mother to just cuss Mr. Gardner out the next time he knocked on the door, and though they would get frustrated with him, they would go ahead and buy something else from this same man who sold them the draperies that had fiberglass in them. If you walked close enough to the draperies, they would reach out and shock you. After they were washed in the sometimes-working old-fashioned wringer washing machine that I was so glad that we had after years of washing clothes in the bathtub on a scrub-board, the fiberglass was in our clothes forever. For that alone, I wanted to do Mr. Gardner bodily harm.

Mr. Gardner sold everything from bedspreads to freezers filled with meat. He convinced my mother to buy a huge stand-up freezer full of meat. The freezer had to be placed in the hallway because of its size.

The meat was not the kind of meat we were used to seeing or eating, so it was only eaten by the desperate when there was absolutely nothing else to eat. I used to imagine that the strange meat was body parts, so I never ate it even if there was nothing else to eat. When I would complain about being hungry or say that there was nothing to eat, my mother would say, “Don’t tell me there is nothing to eat when there is a freezer full of meat right there in the hallway!”

In Spite of It All

If you were asked to describe yourself—regardless of the circumstances or situations—as generally optimistic or pessimistic, what would be your honest assessment? Would your personal emoji be the upturned or downturned smile? When you’re shown the glass with water, is it half full or half empty?

Asked if she was an optimist, Stacey Abrams, responded, “No I’m an amelliorist which is something I made up. I believe that the glass is half full. It’s just probably poisoned. And so my job is always to be on the hunt for the antidote” (“The Story Behind Stacey Abrams’s Fiction Career,” The Atlantic, June 2021).

The idea of being an amelliorist has stuck with me. Would an amelliorist be…

  • one who, in spite of having been betrayed, dares to trust again?
  • one who has seen and experienced injustice and in spite of it continues to fight for justice?
  • one who sees that nothing has changed and in spite of it continues to hope that things will change?
  • one who exhibits a spiritual strength that inspires and unites in spite of the emotional toll?
  • one who, in spite of having one’s own hopes dashed, shares a sense of hopefulness with and for others?
  • one who finds something to learn in spite of the worst of circumstances?

Am I an amelliorist? The mnemonic FIRE that defines my life’s values begins with two words for the letter “F.” Faith and Fate.

Fate has caused me to experience situations that I would rather have avoided, and in spite of it, I have had faith that I will get to the other side of whatever uncomfortable circumstance I’m currently experiencing. Fate makes me understand that life is a crapshoot; sometimes I get the poisoned water but, through my faith, magical thinking, or divine intervention, I’m not thirsty and don’t have to drink the poisoned water. 

Or fate has found me in a situation where quenching my thirst with this particular half glass of water is my only option for survival. In spite of the threat of death, I drink the poisoned water and because of my faith, the poison has no negative effect on me.

As one calendar year ends and another begins for optimists and pessimists (and amelliorists) alike, perhaps this is the optimum time to be mindful of our individual and collective efforts to search for a synthesis of our optimistic and pessimistic selves in order to discover and maintain the equilibrium necessary for us to find meaning and purpose in our lives in spite of external circumstances over which we have no control.

Increasing Capacity to Cope

Monday, September 17, 1996

“The emerging health challenges of the twenty-first century will be novel viruses. We need to begin to build people’s capacity to cope.”

Richard Keeling, MD

(In a NASPA meeting about how to promote HIV/AIDS prevention as an issue of overall health and wellness at colleges and universities.)

Reflections on Thanksgivings Past

Thanksgiving was the time when Charles and I were most giving of our hospitality and love. There was always someone to invite to share the holiday meal with us. It was a most joyous and exhausting time. Both of us had demanding jobs that left little time to clean the house, shop for groceries, and prepare the food. As a result of our anxiety about pulling everything together, we’d always get crosswise with one another about some little thing or another during these hectic times.

We always prepared Thanksgiving dinner staples, along with any new, experimental dishes. The staples included ham, turkey, broccoli cheese casserole, green beans, potato salad, corn bread dressing, and sweet potato and pecan pies. At some point, the ham disappeared altogether, the store-bought rolls were replaced by my attempt to duplicate Larry’s squash rolls, and the canned cranberry sauce gave way to cranberry apple relish (which eventually ceded the spot back to the canned cranberry sauce).

Our happiest times were when we had to add the card table and chairs to the end of our long dining room table in order to accommodate our Thanksgiving family of friends. No matter how late the dinner ended and friends departed or stayed overnight, Charles and I would clear all the dishes and put everything back in order. We loved this time together to laugh about how silly we were when we got cross with one another, and discuss how well we thought the celebration was received.

I will be forever grateful for the opportunities we had to express our love for others and for one another. It was during these times that we knew that we were truly blessed and made for one another.

I talked with Mother today…

Tuesday, November 8, 1994

I talked with Mother today.

When I asked her how she was doing, she said, “Same old, same old. A man was breaking into the apartment and my German Shepherd bit him. I gave the guy $20.”