It was my birthday a few days ago. I turned 47.
As is customary around my birthday, I let people know that it’s coming – I mean, I wouldn’t want to deprive them of an opportunity to wish me well, write me a card or send me a gift. I was raised better than that! (Utterly untrue, my mother would be horrified by my behaviour. Living life my way – check.)
So my birthday came and went and I had a lovely day. I made myself pancakes, and got loads of lovely messages on Facebook and Instagram. I received cards and a few gifts and I was a happy birthday camper. There was snail mail and a bunch of flowers.
The cranks of defining ourselves by a number turned, the gears whirred and here I am, 47. Age has never meant much to me, I don’t recall ever longing to be an age that I wasn’t, whether that was enticingly older, as some younguns probably do, or younger, as seems to be the focus for too many adults. The good old days, the best is yet to come, I don’t really buy into that. Whether it’s the best of times and/0r the worst of times, those seasons befall us all, regardless of age.
On my day off this week, when I was still 46, I decided to go on a little day trip. I love to jump in the car and just go, without much of an idea what will unfold. I packed a little bag with my watercolours, brushes and paper, a book to read, some birthday biscuits my sister made me (yum!) and I tossed a proverbial coin between heading for the Yarra Valley, or the Mornington Peninsula.
And the winner was….
This is one of my favourite parts of the world. I love the colours, the way the wind whips through your hair at the beach, there’s so much of my childhood that’s connected with the Mornington Peninsula. I don’t wish those days were back again, but I love my connection to this place.
As I drove down to the beach, I got to pondering about the year that was just about to be over, the year of 46. I asked myself what I’ve learned, and wondered about what’s the same, what’s different, reflecting on what shaped the year… and right in the midst of those reflections, the notion of being better (or not) than 45 year old me popped up.
Poppycock to that!
It seems to me that it is very popular, particularly in this age of ‘inspo’ everything, to get fixated on bettering ourselves.
Yet, bizarrely, looking back is off the menu – hell no, you’re not supposed to do that. Just spend a little time on Instagram or Twitter and you’re sure to see some inspo meme about never looking back, about every day having to be better than the last, about only competing with yourself. At times, it comes across as an almost religious enslavement to self-improvement.
Once more, for the cheap seats in the back, POPPYCOCK!!
I’m for being what most of us would generally think of as ‘good people’. I’m for kindness and compassion and being welcoming and polite, and for spelling things properly. I’m for remembering to smile and for not talking on your phone when someone is serving you. I’m for offering your seat to someone, and paying for a stranger’s coffee occasionally, and waving when someone lets you into a stream of traffic. I’m for all of that.
Do I need inspo-y memes for those things? I sure hope not.
So, aside from not wanting to become an amoral asshat, what’s behind all this ‘every day in every way, I’m getting better and better’ self-improvement malarky?
Here’s (some of) what I think is behind it.
I think sometimes people don’t like themselves very much, which is heartbreaking.
Perhaps these feelings lead them to go on a quest to be a more acceptable version of themselves. But are they on that quest for themselves, or for someone who has said horrible, hurtful, insensitive words to them somewhere along the line?
Are they trying to be ‘more’ because they see themselves with clarity and want to work more kindness or compassion or discipline into the mix, or do they beat themselves up about things that simply aren’t true.
Are they (we) running towards something or from something? A lot of us are wounded by the echoes of words spoken in the past. Words are very, very powerful. And their legacy can be devastating.
I think people run from their past, from themselves, from really pondering where they’ve been and come from, because sometimes, for some people, that kind of reflection scares the shit out of them. Things seem too big to overcome, too scary to face. I have felt those things. I have known that fear.
Here’s what I know now that I didn’t know ‘then’. People carry deep wounds. People go through things you wouldn’t wish on anyone. Ever. I know that, because I am one of the wounded, and I ran for a long time.
What I can’t come to grips with is how you’re supposed to ‘better’ yourself without paying heed to anything that’s in the rear vision mirror. You have to do that, to some degree. You simply have to. Okay, you don’t have to, because who the hell am I to tell you anything, but I had to. I had to stop running, which was pretty full-on, and then I had to do something that required more courage than I thought I had, I had to look at what I was running from.
Am I ‘there’ now? Am I in the fabled land of personal perfection? Fuck no. But I am not held back by as many of those tight, suffocating bindings that previously kept me down. It was like those ropes were alive, and if I dared to struggle against them, they tightened their grip on me until I couldn’t stand the pain.
Better to just accept that I would always be broken, that I could never be anything but broken. Better to just stuff those feelings down. Some of us do that with sex, with food, with zealous religious belief, with aggression, or withdrawal and isolation, or alcohol. Ahh, that feels much better. No it doesn’t. Not for more than a moment.
I don’t have a ‘3 simple steps to freedom’ ending to this post. If anyone tells you they do, it’s bullshit.
In fact, I don’t really know how to end this post, as I cannot possibly wrap up this topic neatly. So here’s what I’ll do.
I will use my very powerful imagination, and look you in the eye right now.
Every one of you.
And with tears in my eyes (they are real, not imaginary), I want you to hear me say this – you are not irretrievably broken.
You’re not wrong, or stupid, or too much of anything, or too little of anything, you’re not ________.
You’re not. It’s not true.
They don’t get to do that. That’s not how we’re supposed to use our words, to break people’s spirits.
You may be wounded. From the place that I live, wounded is okay, in fact it’s good. As I’ve walked through dark places, the word ‘wounded’ has become a life-alteringly different descriptor than ‘broken’. Wounded meant I could heal. I have healed. I am healing. (I am aware that wounded won’t sit well with everyone, it is what sits well with me. This is not prescriptive, it’s personal.)
Wouldn’t it be great if you could click a link and download something that would bring you through? It’s certainly the way we live now, click and ye shall receive. But I don’t think it works. What works takes a lot more time, and couarage, than that.
I could make those things I just said to you into a bright, shiny Instagram ready poster, sure. I won’t though.
You deserve so much more than a meme.