Have you read that Uncomfortable Plot Summaries thing? You know:
300: Gays kill blacks.
ALIEN: Ship fails to deliver cargo, crew don’t get bonus.
ALIENS: An unplanned pregnancy leads to complications.
BLADE: Obsessed loner stalks minority group.
MICHAEL CLAYTON: Attorney works against client’s interests.
MILK: Uppity queer dies.
SIGNS: Jesus trumps science.
TITANIC: Crazy old widow disregards lifelong memories of husband, children, and grandchildren in favor of that one time she fucked a bum.
WONDER WOMAN: Princess from isolationist culture lectures Americans on equality.
You should really read the whole thing. And then make a Bollywood version for my entertainment. But that’s not where this post is headed: it just reminded me of this story in The Atlantic about a study tracking the lives of a random group of men (including, bizarrely enough, John F. Kennedy) over the past 72 years (!) to find out what makes people happy.
It’s an interesting enough story by itself but what really struck me were the descriptions of the men in the study. Take for instance the man whose obituary made him “sound like a hell of a man—a war hero, a peace activist, a baseball fan.” And yet he’s the same guy the study notes went off the rails at age 31.
[To be fair, he only went off the rails by 1950s standards – by today’s standards, he sounds like everyone I know. Hmmm.]
That’s kind of what obituaries do, isn’t it? You look at a person from the outside and everything is sunshine and roses, their problems are not so bad, they make more money, their kids get better grades and their house is always tidy. And the fear bred by our certainty that we are somehow lesser than our neighbors makes us go the the extra mile to show off the slightest of successes and bury our mildest failures.
Why is it so difficult to take a moment, look at the mess you’ve created and say, “I screwed up”? I’ve been trying my best for years now, but it never seems to get any easier. I don’t mean apologizing for the little things – I can beg pardon and say I’m sorry with the best of them. And I’ll mean it too, nine times out of ten. From the bottom of my heart.
No, I mean the screw-ups that can’t be fixed with an apology. The I-ran-over-your-dog, I-locked-your-child-in-the-basement, I-totally-spazzed-on-delivering-those-papers-you-wanted-delivered-and-now-your-house-will-be-foreclosed kind of thing that requires you to accept responsibility and face unpleasant consequences. The sort of stuff that makes you wake up in the middle of the night ten years later with a blush on your face and your heart racing like mad. The things you never want anyone to find out ever and makes you glad you’re not a celebrity because nobody’ll go ferreting for the “truth” of who you really were as a person and will instead let you be that anonymously bland person who can be summed up in two lines by the local newspaper.
Why is it so important for us to be the people we are on our best day while completely disowning the people we are on our worst day? Especially, as one person in the Grant Study points out, the people we are on our best day usually turn out to be something less than heroes, if not exactly the Nazis he categorized them to be. Constant perfection will do that to you.
Most days I think people need to own their mistakes a little more. Stop running away and trying to push it on to someone else. Just raise your hand and say you did it, even if it is just to yourself. The sky won’t fall, the world won’t end and ice cream will still taste just as good.
And then, some days I think we need to cut ourselves a bit more slack. So you’re pretentious, angry, small-minded, mean, jealous, greedy, and you actually did that thing that you still can’t believe you did, even all these years later. Give yourself the day off from worrying about it and do something nice, either for someone else or for yourself.
You can do it.