A sweet young adult friend was telling me about her wedding plans. The ceremony will be traditionally Catholic and her reception will be a beautiful reflection of her and her future husband. They are being intentional about creating an experience that will meet the needs of guests with young children and their own desire to have quality time with family and friends. It sounds lovely and I admire her creativity.

But then, she said, the “anonymous they” lurched in and she doubted. She wondered what they will think if she doesn’t have a sit-down dinner but instead offers a pizza bar so young children can eat when they get hungry, making the experience more enjoyable for friends who are parents. She was concerned what they will say if she doesn’t do a traditional registry because they already have the stuff they need. They want people to feel comfortable and welcomed, and to dance with them. It’s their day but true to their personalities, they are considering the needs of others.

Happily, her fiance and a good friend reminded her that the “anonymous they” aren’t their friends and won’t be invited to the wedding. She took a deep breath and pressed on with planning. The conversation resonated with me. I am haunted by the “anonymous they,” as well. I have wondered if they will think my house is nice/clean/decorated enough. I’ve been concerned about what I was wearing to an event and labored over shoe choices.

After talking with her, I asked myself, “Who is this ‘anonymous they?’” and “Why do we care so much about what they think?”

The “anonymous they” are just that, anonymous, yet they exist for most of us. They are the culture around us and the ideas reflected in the media, both social and regular. They are the values that our time in history will be remembered by. The “anonymous they” can have a powerful hold on us because humans are pack animals and we don’t want to be left out of the pack. If we dare to operate counter to them, we risk withering looks, whispered criticism and, in the extreme, social isolation. They may be real or imagined, subtle or obvious, but they are there and they creep into our psyche.

My head says it doesn’t matter what they think. If they come to my home and are appalled at the shoes by the door, the kid art hanging on the walls, and the hair monsters tumbling across the floor, if these things make them think less of me, we probably weren’t meant to be friends anyway. If they don’t like my shoe choice or skirt or top or hair, if that is a friendship deal breaker, we most certainly won’t hang out again. My head knows all this.

My heart, though. My heart seems to care what they think and wants everyone to like me. My father’s wise words (“not everyone is going to like you and you are not going to like everyone”) get lost en route from my head to my heart. I don’t want to have to live up to standards of dress or house that, for me, are impossibly high, yet I still weirdly care. I wonder why someone wouldn’t like me. I’m pretty likeable.

Then the effort gets confounded by faith. The me that I think is pretty likeable is in God’s fan club. He’s done some pretty amazing things in my life. The “anonymous they” often don’t approve. I read it in the media and I see it on people’s faces. I feel like I have a secret and if people knew how I feel, if the “anonymous they” got word of it, things would change.

Most of us wage war with the “anonymous they.” We say we don’t care what others think but if we take a look deep inside and are honest, we do care. It’s not a healthy way to be in the world. Even though as Catholics we are not called to be of the world, we still need to be in it and that brings challenges.

So I ponder these things. It goes deeper than appearance. It goes down to the deepest part of me. Jesus warned us that we would be persecuted for love of him. Persecution doesn’t have to be physical beating. It can be derisive looks. It can be social exclusion. I realized I have to take my sensitive heart and strengthen it with love. I have to protect it with prayer and buttress it with the Bible. Then I have to remember the thing that gives me courage: when I die, the “anonymous they” will have no say in whether or not I get into heaven. God gets to make that decision. When worries about the “anonymous they” start making me doubt the truth or perseverate on trivialities, I will remember that here on earth we are playing a long game and the stakes are high. I will ask the Lord for the grace to make him proud because, really, he’s the only one whose opinion I care about.