One of the hardest burdens to bear is being misunderstood by other people. All of us at one point or another experience looking into the eyes of another person and realizing that he or she simply does not see us the way we see ourselves, and probably never will. How you respond to being misunderstood will be the difference between spending a good deal of time trying to correct other people's misperceptions or being free to carry on with your life no matter what others think of you.
This choice came home to me in the first marathon I ever participated in. I was in the great city of Prague in the Czech Republic for my very first 26.2 mile race—a destination adventure I'd been planning (and training for) for well over a year. The morning of the race, my running companion and I arrived at the starting area 45 minutes early. Or so we thought. We quickly realized that, although we were early, there should be more people milling around—more activity, more excitement.
A sneaking suspicion began to arise in both of us that we had made some kind of mistake, so we dug through my friend's bag for the paper with all of the race information on it and discovered, to our horror and deep disappointment, that we were not 45 minutes early at all. We were fifteen minutes late!!
In a rush, with heart rates soaring, we scurried to the starting line itself where a volunteer said, "Yes, you are late. Go now. Follow the course." Since the race was chip timed, although we'd missed our opportunity to run with the crowd, we could still do the race and get an accurate reading on how long it took us. So off we went.
We followed the course, which was cordoned off through the ancient city with temporary fences to keep bystanders from getting in the way of the runners. Along the cobbled streets we went, running faster than we'd trained in our attempt to close in on the back of the pack. And then, the worst thing possible happened: we lost our way.
Probably thinking that all the initial runners had come through, volunteers had begun taking down the fences that indicated the direction of the route. My companion and I stood in the midst of strangers—tourists and fans out to watch the beginning of the race—totally confused. There was no way to know where the runners had gone.
Suddenly, out from behind a building, a small group of fit, fast racers emerged. The route had somehow circled the downtown and was now about to cross a bridge to take runners into a more rural area along the Vltava River.
I looked at my friend. He looked at me. And with a nod, we agreed that we should jump in and follow these runners. We knew we were cutting off about three miles from the official route, but with no one to guide us, jumping in would make the best of an unfortunate situation. So jump in we did.
And the crowd went wild! "Boo! Cheaters! You suck!" they shouted at us. (Well, they were shouting in Czech, but I'm fairly sure that's what they were saying.)
We felt terrible—guilty and embarrassed. What had we just done?
After running in silent shame for a mile or so, we finally began to talk about what had just happened. "I've never cheated in a race before," my friend said.
"I've never cheated, period," I replied. I'd always been one of those people who would drive five miles to return a pen I accidentally walked out with after writing a check at a grocery store. The dark dishonor of what we'd done weighed us both down.
"What should we do?"
What could we do?
We brainstormed for a good long time about how to right our wrong and finally determined that we would finish the miles ahead of us, but when we crossed the finish line, we would not allow the medals to be placed around our necks. Instead, we would take them back to the hotel where a map of the course sat on the dresser. We would shower and get dressed. Then, with the course map in hand, we would solemnly walk the part of the course we had missed. And only when we finished that walk would we put on our medals.
And while this plan appeased our consciences, there was nothing at all we could do about the bad opinions of those who had booed and hissed at us when we jumped into the race. We had no power to find those people who saw us "cheat" and tell them: "Look, we really are good, honest people." No, we would have to live with the fact that there were people in the world who might always tell the story of the day they watched two runners cheat their way onto a marathon course in Prague.
And so it is. We'd have to let it go and know that we'd done the best we could to be true to our values.
Whether those who misunderstand you are strangers or family members, you have to choose what will drive your behavior: your own conscience or your fear of what others might think of you. Choose your conscience. It lives inside of you and goes everywhere you go. Tolerating the fact that others believe you are dishonest/unkind/stingy/rude (fill in the blank) is not easy. It takes a great deal of self-control not to retrace your steps and try to constantly explain yourself so that people might see you the way you see yourself. But trust me, you'll never finish the race if you do that.