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Monday, February 24, 2014

Why It's Okay to Be the Bad Guy

It’s okay to be the bad guy.  This is something all good parents know in their bones and live in relationship to their kids.  The word “no” is the tool by which we do right by our offspring; the word “no” is also the most divisive and difficult word to say.  No, you may not watch another hour of television (even though I am exhausted and frankly could use the quiet time).  No, you may not have another cookie (even though it would assure you would skip off instead of stomping).  No, you may not have the latest iPhone, ride your bike without your helmet or draw a “masterpiece” on the wall.  It is an endless cycle of disappointing expectations that earns you not only stomping, but also glaring, eye-rolling, exaggerated sighing and, depending on the kid, full on tantrums and name calling.  Denying a teenager his or her heart’s desire can even get you shunned.  But we do it anyway; we are willing to be the bad guy because we know what is best for our children.

So now we can expand on this premise.  If it is okay to be the “bad guy” for our kid’s best interests, is it possible that it is also okay to be the “bad guy” for our own?  Radical thinking, I know.  But the word “no” can be used on our own behalf to some good effect.  And here’s another thing:  we are all willing to make sweeping, unilateral decisions if we feel they benefit our family in some way, and no amount of whining, cajoling or guilt-tripping will manipulate us into standing down.  When was the last time that was true when you made an unpopular decision that was in your own self-interest?  This is where we get tripped up, because isn’t “self-interest” synonymous with “selfish”?  And don’t most of us agree it is bad to be selfish?  And don’t we often say no to our kids in order to teach them how NOT to be selfish???
We teach our kids to share, especially with children who may have less than they do.  We teach our kids to cooperate and compromise, especially if they have a tendency to bully for their own way.  We teach our kids to prioritize the greater good, even if it means a bit of sacrifice for them.  We teach our kids not to be selfish, but all they have to do is watch TV to understand that some of the most powerful men and women in the world embody and advocate the exact opposite of those ideals.  Frankly, being selfish pays very well and is often key to climbing the ladder to success.  It is also the key to keeping other people off of the ladder, thereby increasing your chances of making it to the top.  So now we are on the horns of the dilemma:  is it possible to be unselfish and compassionate and still “be all that you can be”?

Of course to a logical mind, this is not an either/or scenario; we need not take one horn or the other, but endeavor a middle path, striking a healthy balance between the two.  Perhaps we overcorrect our children because a child can really only perceive self-interest up to a point, and so we train them to the extreme in order to create that balance.  But now let’s return to ourselves…are we overcorrecting ourselves as well?  Do we feel a healthy give and take between the number of times we say “yes” and the number of times we say “no” or have too many of us built our self-esteem on compliance to other people’s wishes?  If the latter is true, how many times do we back ourselves into an endless loop of self-abuse by realizing and re-realizing that you can only please some of the people some of the time?
This is why you have to be willing to be a bad guy.  Because the truth of the matter is, unless you are a complete and total people-pleasing doormat, YOU ALREADY ARE, at least in the minds of some others.  Do you hear me?  YOU ARE A BAD GUY.  The denial of this fact probably causes us as much unhappiness as anything in the world, because it is our belief that we CAN in fact please all of the people all of the time that leads to exhaustion and pain.  You just have to accept that someone thinks you are shallow, or someone else thinks you’re arrogant, or someone else may even think of you as (gulp!) selfish!  Despite your very best efforts to make the exact opposite impression!  At times you just rub people the wrong way (guilty as charged),  occasionally a momentary lapse on your part can give a permanent bad impression (oops!) and the worst news yet is that every so often your very best efforts fall short, at least in the mind of a (very demanding!) other.  What I’m saying is that this game is rigged; you cannot win it.  Choose one horn or the other, but in the end you’ll be impaled.  Sorry about that.

So not only is it okay to be the bad guy, it is actually inevitable.  Whether you do it deliberately or not, there are always going to be people who don’t like you, or hold a grudge against you, or think you are an idiot/jerk/selfish brat/social climber/lazy slob/arrogant snob, whatever.  This may be your “fault” and it may be entirely a projection on the other person’s part, but ultimately the result is the same.  So the next time you have to say “no”, or make a decision that may prove to be unpopular, or make a choice that may be perceived as selfish, try taking the court of public opinion out of the equation.  Ask yourself, what would I do if no one else would know?  This may be a drastic stance on the “dance like no one was watching” adage, but you have to get to a point where you trust yourself enough not to question your own motives.  Are you a good person because people are watching?  Or are you authentically yourself, a person who doesn’t steal or kill but may occasionally not be in the mood for a Tupperware party?  When you accept you are already a villain in someone else’s play, you realize the only place you have the power to rewrite is your own story. 
Parents know:  some days you are the good guy, some days you are the bad guy, most days you are everything in between and then some.  We can accept these roles on behalf of our children, so why is it so easy to forget when we are thinking for ourselves?  I am willing to be the bad guy because the pain of someone’s judgments about me are no longer more acute than the pain of living a life that exhausts me and undermines my faith in myself.  I’m willing to be the bad guy because I’ve lived long enough to know being willing to make a decision, even if it is a hard one, is so much better than living in a stagnation.  I’m willing to be a bad guy because I know myself very well, all the dark and light places, and I trust that my primary motivation is to seek the light.  I’m willing to be the bad guy because I’m willing to forgive you on days when you take that part.  And you will take it, whether you want to or not.  So rip off the Band-Aid and become deliberate; you own this role.  You may not relish it, but life will be so much simpler if you can accept it.

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Monday, February 10, 2014


I have always hated the Olympics, even when I was a kid.  ESPECIALLY when I was a kid, actually, because in the time before cable, there were only three broadcast networks, and those three broadcast networks ALL aired Olympics and Olympics ONLY round the clock for what felt like eons.  I awaited each new cycle with a dread that bordered on rage; who in their right mind wants to watch amateur sports and only amateur sports for weeks on end?  WHO??  WHO??? 

Well, apparently a lot of people who are not me because the Olympics are still around, although thankfully no longer on every network and blessedly not around the clock.  God, those endless days of Olympics with nothing else to watch, especially in the winter!  My own personal hell.  I admit I am not a fan of sports in general, but I can enjoy a rousing game of basketball with the best of them, or even listen for up to five minutes when my husband or son drones on and on about football.  But the Olympics are a total drag, imho.
I can just imagine people getting all outraged about this because I think it is most likely considered “un-American” to hate the Olympics, and what worse crime is there than being “un-American”?  America was built on the competitive spirit!!!   The drive to excel!!!...but I would argue that it was actually built on the foundation of cooperation and community driven initiative.   Personally, I don’t give a damn who wins the Olympics because, to trot out another cliché, aren’t they already winners if they made it to the Olympics? 

And while I am certainly not advocating NOT doing your best, I also recognize that my best varies tremendously from day to day and I assume this is true of most people, even Olympians.  I assume that plenty of people have maybe gotten the (gasp!) bronze when they are capable of the gold, just because they were having an off day.  Or maybe someone else was just really having an ON day, who knows?  My point is, I really couldn’t care less about who came in one tenth of a second ahead of somebody else, if you can forgive me for this.

I have seen kids bawl their eyes out over big team losses, small team losses, coming in a tenth of a second behind someone else and losing a game of Go Fish; to me it is all the same.  Essentially meaningless.  The percentage of people who will go on to play professional sports is negligible, and those who will be professional card players even fewer.  To me, it is all the biggest “WHO CARES?” on the planet, and frankly if you can’t have fun either way I don’t know why in the world you would bother to play the game, no matter what it is. 

Losing is part of life, a pretty crucial part of life, actually.  Theoretically at least, it should teach you self-compassion, other-compassion and how to sort out the meaningless from the meaningful.  When you die, the headline might read “Gold Medal Winner Passes Away”, but what really matters about your life and how you lived it will be completely absent from that banner.  You could win a gold medal and be a truly terrible person.  Or you could win a gold medal and be the greatest person who ever lived.  But the latter is not dependent on the former and never could be.
Look, I am not trying to yuck anybody’s yum here; if you just love watching a bunch of kids you don’t know compete against each other at various sports, go for it.  I think we can all be moved by the personal stories, the purity of purpose those young people seem to embody.  But the next time you watch some little ice skater crying her eyes out because TODAY of ALL DAYS she had to fall in the middle of her routine, remember that she has given up having a normal life for this day. 

She has given up sleep, a lot of fun food and the better part of her social life for this day.  She has LIVED FOR THIS DAY and THIS DAY ONLY for most of her life and guess what?  It didn’t pay off.  She was having an off day and she choked, like we all do a thousand times in a lifetime, but hopefully and usually we have sacrificed very little to our screw up and we can just shrug and say tomorrow’s another day.  She can’t and I am not okay with that.  As gold medal winner Tara Lipinski put it, “You have so much pressure on you, and there's so many people relying on you, and the rest of your life is riding on four minutes”.   The rest of your life is riding on four minutes.   I do not think a culture that promotes that idea is okay.  To me, it is not okay at all. 

People are so derisive of the “everybody gets trophy” mentality in children’s sports, but I am not one of those people.  You don’t have to be a star, baby, to be in my show.  If you are here, not being a jerk and having some fun, I am glad to have you.  Once when she was little, my niece was playing with a group of children (including her cousin, my son) and decided she was going to give everyone a prize.  So she got out the crayons and paper and made a medal for every kid who was there.  She picked out a strength she noticed in their behavior and gave them a medal for it. 

How unbelievably great is that?  How would it be, if instead of training children to compete against each other in various endeavors, we taught them to notice and appreciate the strengths and gifts others bring to the table with gratitude, not envy?  There is a time and place for competition, but as Emerson so perfectly put it, “The roses…do not compare themselves to former roses or better ones; they are what they are.”  And so are we, each a perfect rose in our own way.  We are not all going to be Olympians, but we all have a lot to contribute on our good days, our bad days and every day in between.  So today you get a medal, whether you fell during your “routine” or not.  You get a medal for getting back up, and for remembering that tomorrow is another day.