“Angry is just sad’s bodyguard.” – Liza Palmer
When you do as much life as I do (and drink as much drink as I do), mistakes are inevitable. If you happen to also share an inability to understand imperfect as anything other than a synonym for failure, then you, too, may find yourself blind with despair from time to time.
I was a smart kid. Like, really smart. Early reader, high IQ, gifted programs, top tier testing scores. So anything less than an “A+” signified I’d done something wrong. Clearly I was capable of the best grades. To get an “A-” or a “B” equaled failure, incurred disappointment. This isn’t a wholly inappropriate approach – look at all the people who succeed because “failure isn’t an option” – but since, in addition to being smart, I was also a human child person, I wasn’t perfect. So I spent a lot of time feeling lousy about myself. Then one day, as a teenager, I realized that while I couldn’t be perfect, I could be really, really good at being imperfect. If I’d had a slogan at that time, it would’ve been along the lines of, “Fuck this, let’s party!” (Which probably was an ’80s catchphrase!)
Happily, I survived those years and – forgive the well-worn storyline – fell in love and found myself pregnant and had a baby and moved in with my guy. Do you know how happy people are for you when you’re 20 with a baby and no money and not yet married? Not at all! They think you’re stupid. Like, really stupid. No future, a loser, a burden on society. So once again I had to do everything right, this time to prove everyone wrong.
Decades later, I have the love of good friends, the respect of inspiring colleagues, a certain amount of success. I worked hard to get here. I’m thoughtful to my friends and put effort into maintaining our friendships. I strive to figure out the best ways to do things and deliver what I’ve promised. Whatever the job has been, from waitressing to advocacy, I ensure I’m not the weak link. I can take some of the credit for making this fine life I have.
But the shift to a less confident perspective happens easily. What about all the mistakes along the way? The times I’ve inadvertently hurt feelings, the times I’ve failed to keep my cool, the misunderstandings and misdirected anger? Everything seems precarious. One misstep and all will come undone. Imposter syndrome inhabits me like a ghost. My friends are going to be so disappointed. And my enemies will gloat.
Failure is not an option!
Except, of course, I sometimes do stupid things. I’m sure no one else on the planet except for the very worst people ever does stupid things, so it’s quite a burden to live with, especially when “stupid” is synonymous with “irrationally enraged” (and tangled up in booze, which never seems to have the effect of improving my decisions – again, I must be the only one on Earth who experiences this).
So what happens is something like this:
The news is full of sexual assault. This is, weirdly, a positive thing because at last women are being heard and believed. Unfortunate that it’s taking the potential destruction of our country to reach that point, but I’ll take the cultural shift nonetheless. For me – and I suspect many women – the bombardment of description, of conversation, of quotes, of stories blasts my own experiences right up to the surface. After a lifetime of that shit, you’d think a girl would be able to shrug off her feelings – boring! – but no. Especially when living in a small town makes escaping the pain impossible. I’m reminded of how damaged part of me is, how much this entangles me and my world.
And all that hurt hangs out in the dark alley of my psyche with its attendant companion, anger. And if something – anything – exposes that hurt, then BAM, anger will take you OUT. I mean, I’m not really that tough. Or mean. (A little judgy. But only toward the worst people.) The problem is, sometimes what invokes this instinct for self-protection comes from places that don’t make sense, except through the short-circuiting synapses of my imperfect brain. But to me the dots connect – this person irritating me at the moment is connected to that person who made rape jokes at my friend’s expense who is connected to that company who once got in trouble over a sexual assault joke who is connected to the guy who sexually assaulted me and admired by the people who support him and there’s another connection to a weird unrelated ethics issue that troubled me greatly at the time – there is this line and they are all on the other side of it and so of course I get angry! Witnesses can only note I’m overreacting, inappropriate, possibly insane.
(Obviously this is not my default way of operating within the world or I would be locked up somewhere. It also makes me realize many of us are closer to the edge than we realize.)
At some point logic kicks back in and I wince, cringe, flinch, grimace, press my hands against my forehead and say, “Oh god, I’m so sorry. I overreacted. I was inappropriate. I behaved like an insane person.”
The worst part about giving weight to the wrong things in the wrong way (unless you’re the Republican nominee) is you undermine all the ways in which you are right. Like, most guys should not make rape jokes. People should be more thoughtful about who and what and how they support. Guys should not harass, assault or rape people. This stuff is really serious.
So sometimes I have to apologize to people who don’t like me that much. Sometimes they’re gracious, the way I would hope to be if the situation was reversed (which it never is, since I am the worst person). Sometimes they’re obliged to affirm my many flaws and add some I hadn’t considered. I can’t really argue.
My friends, the best people in the world, assure me I’m allowed to make mistakes. They’re always gracious, inspiring me to see the world – including myself – through kinder eyes. It’s such a gift, this.
Which I suppose is the best part of making mistakes – learning that you don’t have to be perfect. That you can be flawed and still good. That striving to be good, to atone for the times you’re not, is valuable in itself.
Smart people already know this. Apparently I’m still learning.
In the meantime, there’s always this.