So the other day a friend of mine joked that he was going to call his autobiography, “The Lives I’ve Ruined”. HA! At least, I hope that was a joke. But as a recovering perfectionist, it got me thinking a lot about that idea that things get “ruined” because of our actions…a cake, an event, a relationship…we say we “ruined” it by adding too much sugar or scheduling it on a day it rained or enabling bad behavior or behaving badly ourselves.
I think the
reality is that most things are pretty tough to ruin. I guarantee you will find someone who thinks
your ruined cake is delicious (or at the very least hilarious), your rainy
wedding poetic and your “failed” relationship good riddance to bad trash. Most good things are very hard to ruin, and
to ruin a life is damned near impossible.
There goes the premise of my friend’s autobiography. See, I ruined it for him. Ha again.
I used to be the kind of person who never left the house without make-up. Never let anyone see my house messy. Never let anyone know they had hurt me, exposed my fear of not being lovable, not being good enough. Perfectionism was recently redefined by Elizabeth “Eat, Pray, Love” Gilbert as “Fear, in really good shoes”. I used to be afraid that if I was unkempt or messy or vulnerable, these obvious markers of my imperfection would declare me unlovable, worthless.
I lived in a constant state of anxiety about “ruining” things and this anxiety caused me not only to screw up more, but also rendered me incapable of enjoying anything until it was completed and deemed by the royal me as a “success”. Naturally I set the bar so high for what was “successful” or “clean” or “attractive”, I could rarely accomplish my objective, which would leave me with massive case of “aftershame”. Eventually I realized it was my expectation that things go “perfectly” that was the real enemy. Not the rain, the zit or the dust on my mantle. It was the idea that anything less than perfect was “ruined”.
For example, as an achievement driven society, we tend to view marriage as a “goal” in a relationship; a long term marriage is a “success”, a marriage that ends in divorce is a “failure”. Divorce means we “ruined” our marriage. But not all relationships are meant to last forever.
This message brought to you by a Cancer, stage three clinger if there ever was one. Just ask any of the people who have been engaged in 20, 30 and in a few cases 40+ years of friendship with me: I hang on for dear life. Like the crab that is the symbol of my sun sign, once I attach I am very, very difficult to shake off.
I am passionate in my friendships; in fact, I am passionate about all things I love, from people to places to movies to books and in a few rare cases even things. But I have had to accept, fortunately again in a few rare cases, that some relationships are not built to last. There is almost always some pain in this, but endings are actually new paths that open for us, paths that the relationship prepared us for and pushed us towards. This is the gift of a “failed” relationship: it sends you in a new direction that you never would have conceived of if you hadn’t come through it exactly the way you did. It was a gateway to a new part of your life, a new part of you.
There is humor and wisdom in the expression, “There’s nothing worse than a reformed drunk”, because it reminds us to laugh at the hypocrisy of judgments. Have you ever known a slob who becomes a self-righteous neatnik after living with a worse slob? We see ourselves mirrored in our exchanges with other people and when we don’t like the reflection, it is our invitation to grow and change. ..“When the student is ready, a teacher appears”. I think this applies to every single relationship you have in your life.
But here’s the rub: in each of those relationships you are BOTH teacher AND student. We learn from each other, sometimes through joyful communion and sometimes…not so joyful. The Buddhists believe it is the people who irritate us and push our buttons that we have the most to learn from. There is an old legend about a man who was relocating to a new village and insisted on taking his worst and most insubordinate servant along. When the head houseman questioned this decision his master told him he had heard the inhabitants of the new village were so pleasant he was afraid he would not have any opportunity for personal growth without him. Love it!
So here is my conclusion: you haven’t ruined anything. If you are still breathing, you still have an opportunity to bring your best self to the table and live a life you feel good about. That will mean a million different things to a million different people and that is how it is supposed to be. We travel many roads with our various companions while we are here on earth, some of them more enjoyable than others, all of them crucial to the development of our true selves.
Like an irritant forms a pearl, we are honed into our best selves by the people who challenge us as much as those who love us. We learn from each other and while we definitely will have preferences about the lessons we get, all of them are ultimately useful if we remember to see them that way. Not a single thing you have done in your life has been in vain, because you (and/or someone else!) have learned from it. You haven’t ruined anything. You are on a journey and even if you sometimes feel lost, the destination is never in doubt.