So the 21st was the day of the Birthday Question. It’s the 2014 edition and roughly the 4th year of asking it. I think for me, this is a fairly easy thing to decide on. Last year was a big year and one that I spent a lot of time reflecting about. I feel a lot more in touch with what’s actually important and where I’ve grown the most. I think the biggest difference between the me of today and the me of last year is that I can understand the gap between what I want for other people and what they need for themselves.
I’m kind of a steamroller. I usually have a strong sense of how things should be. I usually know what steps to take to get there. I’ve learned that if I’m acting alone or in some context where the outcome is objective and there are no strong feelings, my tendency to impart order onto chaos is a strength. Sometimes the grand future I see requires change in other people. In that case, this style of… let’s call it ‘assertive problem solving’ is actually problematic. I’ve learned why this year.
Last year, I learned to accept my flaws more than I ever had before. I learned that doing so makes me stronger rather than weaker like I had previously thought. This year, I learned that extending that love and acceptance to the people around me works exactly the same way. I learned that it was actually fear that kept me from loving and accepting the people around me in the first place. When someone has a major character flaw, I felt I had two options: push them away or hold a strong line about that issue and never give an inch.
On some level it’s probably good not to condone bad behaviours. So, in some small way, yay me for that. In reality though, my reaction to these flaws wasn’t based in a desire to help the person. No, it was to keep myself from catching the cooties. To keep me free from falling into that same flaw pit and being worse off for it. When I was young, this was a real risk and avoiding it, a valuable skill. This year I learned that now, it’s a mostly bogus vestige of being young and surrounded by people I didn’t want to end up like.
For instance, let’s say someone has a flaw that makes them a bad decision maker. It turns out that it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll absorb that flaw through unconscious osmosis. The very fact that I see the flaw means I’m probably insulated from it. It’s still in me to try to fix the problem. Importantly though, if I really want to make things better, there are much better things I can do than throw their flaws in their face or push them away. In fact, letting people know that there’s something about them that should be improved mostly has the opposite effect of making things better. At least, the way I was doing it — at arm’s length, trying my best not to let any part of them touch me lest I become the worse for it.
This year I learned that the fear of being bad is a really strong, growth-inhibiting fear. I learned that people are usually doing their best. That whatever we should be doing differently we probably would be doing if we could. Someone who comes along and happens to see a better way isn’t really offering much by just telling the person about how things could be.
It’s kind of like seeing a person who is straining to live life in a scary world. They’re wearing a suit of armour for protection. Old me would see the suit of armour and say, “Hey, if you weren’t wearing that silly helmet, you’d be way better off!” At best I sound like a complete dick. At worst, I only make the person pile on more armour — to guard themselves against me and other people who would criticise them for being guarded in the first place. The reality is that the person is already doing the very best they can, struggling to feel good. They aren’t armoured up for no reason. That’s the gap I used to miss. Or maybe wilfully ignore is more accurate — a sort of self-protection in its own right.
It’s interesting that it was so hard to see this. It was hard work to realise that the way I kick myself for not being perfect is actually unhelpful. It’s been just as hard to generalise that acceptance to everyone around me. At least, it’s certainly much easier to just have a simple pass-fail test and cut off things that I’m nervous about and can’t use force of will to change. The problem here is that this makes me a very prickly person. Someone for whom you either pass or fail. If you fail, you experience a very different, compassionless side of me. Not because I want to be that way, but because it’s the only way I can definitely keep you from making me something I’m afraid of being (rightly or wrongly). At least, so I thought. This has been such a useful growth strategy, it’s been really hard to let it go where it doesn’t actually work.
At the same time, I can see now that almost everyone I know can think of at least one thing they would improve about themselves. Most of the time, they can think of lots of things. So, it’s not as if they’re just fundamentally flawed people who might drag me down in blissful ignorance of their toxicity. In fact, if they could get to a better place, they would. In all likelihood, they will in time anyway. But what if I see something that trips the ‘fix it or GTFO’ alarm in my head? How do I fix it?
Well, the biggest lesson I’ve learned this year is that love helps. Acceptance helps. It turns out that I and so many people I know do weird shit because we’re armoured up for conditions that aren’t obvious. Life is stressful. The world is dark and terrible at times. No one I know carries around protective gear just for funsies. The thing that has helped me need less armour was chancing to trust people more, going against some very well-trained instincts. Trusting that, probably, everything will just be okay. That the moments where things aren’t okay also aren’t the end of the world. I’ve learned that if I want to help people, it’s not a hard push for a grand and beautiful future they need. Probably, they need some love and some acceptance. With more goodness, they’ll probably get to a good place on their own. It’s pretty likely it might be a place even better than what my purview included in the first place.