Rejecting Rejection: being thrown back to the future

Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back,
and, instead of bleeding, he sings.
—Robert Benchley

On that note, this recollection might be considered an aria, or at least a simple arpeggio sharing some thoughts and perspective on a topic we all probably know a great deal about – rejection.

An email I received this morning informed me in terse bureaucratic pap that my application to serve as a volunteer on a national review board had been rejected.

-Destined not to be a patrol boy –

In seconds, the decades receded quickly and I was once again standing before Mrs. MacLean’s desk, my sixth grade teacher at North Shore Elementary School in Jacksonville Florida.

Mildred Mclean, sixth grade teacher, North Shore Elementary School, Jacksonville, Florida.
Mildred McLean, sixth grade teacher, North Shore Elementary School, Jacksonville, Florida.

I really liked Mrs. MacLean who seemed to like me. While she used a firm voice to maintain discipline in the overcrowded classroom of just barely prepubescent students, in person she looked directly into your eyes, and spoke softly and warmly with encouraging words.

This time, however, while her words were soft and warm, they told me she was not going to appoint me as a member of the schoolboy patrol – a volunteer position I had really wanted to have. Instead, she tried to explain to me that she was giving the position to someone else in the class that she felt needed it more than I.

She did not say he deserved it more than I, but they needed the position more than I – she made me understand the position would bring some benefits to him that I did not actually need. At the time, I did not understand – or agree with – her reasoning.

Concepts such as self-esteem, or personal fulfillment, were not ones I understood. Later, I understood more fully that she believed that position would help confer more of those qualities on the one she chose, rather than on me – that coming from a broken home he needed those benefits more than I. My family was intact, and at the time I was already a Boy Scout and working diligently to earn its badges and ranks. Perhaps she saw that energy and determination. And, her decision was the right one, and I am sure my classmate and friend benefited a great deal from the new position and its responsibility.

Regardless of her reasons, the rejection still hurt a great deal. I did, even then, respect her depth and strength of character in telling me the reasons behind her decision.   It was my first major rejection, that I can remember, and it was based not on personal merit but on other factors over which I had no control.

– Thrown back, in the swim again –

One thing did occur to me this morning as I started the coping and “dealing with it” phase of processing the information, I realized that I had never really considered the term “rejection.” Turning to my well-worn, American Heritage Dictionary, the one with the section in the back that covers Indo-European root words, I flipped to the word “reject.”

“Reject,” it explained, means to refuse to accept, to recognize, or make use of – repudiate. To deny. To refuse affection or recognition to a person. To discard as defective or useless – throw away. Further, I learned that our English word is based on the Latin word rejicere, meaning to throw back.  I even followed the root word back some 5000 years to the word ye, meeting to throw.

– Dealing with rejection – over 200 million approaches –

So that was it, I had been thrown, and not simply just thrown, but thrown back.

But did that mean that the action had thrown me backwards, or that it had returned me (as in catch and release) to some unnamed pool where I could escape the lures and baits for a while longer? The meaning of the action and its consequences, I realized were up to me. I would have to decide how to interpret and respond to the rejection. Ultimately, the rejection would have only the power over me that I myself gave it. And, I did not intend to give it much power at all, frankly.

Doing what most of us do these days, first,I turned to Google with the question “dealing with rejection.”

Boy was I relieved to know that it found “About 202,000,000 results (0.33 seconds)…”  Clearly, I was not the first of my species to seek advice on dealing with rejection.  I was going to have a great deal of help to “stop the hurt, anger and sadness… How to handle rejection: 14 steps (with pictures)… Why rejection hurts (and how to cope)… Unlucky in life: how to deal with rejection… And, how to overcome rejection, your past is not your future.”

Then there were the different categories of rejection to consider ranging from romantic rejection, rejection from a friend, job rejection and love rejection, to social rejection, dating rejection, relationship rejection, and even fear of rejection.   Clearly, there are a lot of ways to get thrown back.

Like most of you, at this stage in my life, I am no stranger to rejection. The schoolboy patrol position was just the first of many opportunities that were withheld from me or that I failed to obtain during a rather full lifetime. Nevertheless, I was reminded of the story about the boy who was asked how he felt after stabbing his toe. “Well, I’m too old to cry, but it hurts too much to laugh.”

This morning, I wasn’t crying, but I certainly wasn’t laughing after reading the email. Negative communications like that leave the sourness of rejection and the emptiness of not knowing the reasons for the decision – even for the short while it should take us to “move on” with our lives and destinies.

It certainly hurt too much to laugh when after obtaining a congressional appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, I was told at the end of the required physical examination that my vision was not what was required for admission. My vision was 20/200 corrected to 20/20 with lenses, while Academy guidelines would only allow no more than 20/100 myopia.

So, in order to meet our military obligation, I enlisted in the Naval reserve, and worked my way through Jacksonville University and the University of Florida. Following graduation, the Navy was quite willing to give me a waiver and I was commissioned in early 1962.

The Naval Academy had “thrown me back.” But in doing so, it provided the opportunity for me to serve as a petty officer (which I consider essential training for all future commissioned officers), and gave me nearly 5 years of longevity that counted for pay purposes – additional monies not available to Academy graduates whose time at Annapolis did not count as “longevity,” and which were invested in our new family, instead.  At the time, I told my wife, Faith, that it represented “a Volkswagen a year,” meaning we could buy a new car with the extra money we earned with the longevity.

I certainly wasn’t laughing the many times my book proposals were returned with letters of rejection, or simply not returned at all. Yet, being “thrown back” left me with the time and resources to pursue other, perhaps even more meritorious, and certainly more successful publishing opportunities that now include seven major handbooks, a dictionary, and two major works of military history.

I’ll not presume to offer you any explicit advice on how to deal with rejection in your life. As you have seen, Google will offer the widest smorgasbord of advice you could possibly need.  Adapt – not adopt – as needed in your particular situation.

-To Bheu or not to Bheu-

Famously, William Shakespeare in his immortal play Hamlet, has a despondent Prince Hamlet contemplate the choice between death and suicide.

“To be, or not to be, that is the question…”

Hamlet was contemplating death versus suicide – bemoaning the unfairness and frequent pains of life, but acknowledging the alternative might be even worse.

In choosing that phrase, Shakespeare was using a word and a meaning that were already thousands of years old. The Indo-European root word bheu evolved to serve new purposes as the language evolved to English and other European languages. Its meanings expanded to include dwellings, buildings, riches, nurturing, growth, neighbors, growing well and straightforwardly, and the future – that is to be.

In a sense, Hamlet’s choice is one we all face frequently. Do we attempt to control our future by actively existing, and through our actions to grow and become more competent? Or, do we give up – decide “not to be” – and accept whatever the environment in which we must exist does with us and our now blighted futures?

For quality guru Dr. W. Edwards Deming, governing the future was not simply a choice, but our job.

“Man’s job is to govern the future, not simply be a victim of the wind blowing this way and that way. I know, the best plans are upset. But, without a plan there is no chance. Best efforts will not do it!”
– W. Edwards Deming –

If the answers and outcomes to our future are to be the ones we want, then we must govern our own futures. If we fail to govern our futures, then like Hamlet, we have chosen not to be – and the outcomes will most likely be the same – our alternative futures will almost certainly be worse than the ones we would have experienced by controlling our future.

If you’re not controlling your future — actively steering your life towards destinations you have chosen as best for you, then you are essentially a galley slave on someone else’s ship – not a good thing! The hours are long, the atmosphere can be locker-room redolent, you would not write home to mama about the food (if you had the means or the permission to do so), and many days are highlighted by demands from the ship captain that you and your fellow “not-to-be-ers” take them water-skiing.

The difference between steering for the stars or falling victim to the whims of the winds (or demanding galley slave captains) depends on your answers to two simple, but uniquely challenging questions:

Where am I going, and,
What is the best way to get there?

Answering these two fundamental questions is also an answer to how we can best handle rejections when they all too frequently come into our life.

Governing the future will require our unique plans that remind us where were going, and the paths we have chosen as the best ways to get there. In that context, being “thrown back” should be seen as gifts that tell us that a particular path is probably not the best one to get us further on down the road toward our life’s goals.  It’s not sour grapes, but program evaluation being performed by someone else, at their expense.

Surely we can recognize the value of “catch and release.”  It works for people, too.

About Tracy Connors

Tracy D. Connors graduated from Jacksonville University (AA), University of Florida (BA), the University of Rhode Island (MA), and Capella University (Ph.D. with Distinction, human services management, 2013). Ph.D. (Honorary), Leadership Excellence, Jacksonville University, December, 2013. Designated a "Distinguished Dolphin" by Jacksonville University, Feb. 2, 2010.

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