By Julie Warren
“I’m ninety-nine for a moment;
Dying for just another moment
And I’m just dreaming
Counting the ways to where you are…
There’s never a wish better than this
When you only have 100 years to live”
— Five for Fighting
I put my back out recently. Just saying that makes me feel old and reminds me that I should work out more, that I’ve let myself go. I have my priorities all wrong. I am spread so thin that I am not doing anything well right now. I am a bad mom, a bad boss, and a flabby, aging mess.
I should go to the gym, I should read at night more with my kids, I should skip that brownie … you know, like the people who have all of their shit together do — the great moms and the fitness nut jobs. They make brownies out of kale and quinoa for Christ’s sake! Kale just rots in my fridge … I know it is good for me, but I just can’t chop it finely enough to choke it down.
Like most of us, I am certain that there is someone out there living The Right Way – the ideal, perfect, profound and so far, fully unattainable way. People who live The Right Way are perpetually happy, their kids are Einstein-angel-athletes, their bodies are nubile into their 70s and they are living lives of profound meaning and fulfillment. (Lucky bastards!)
They are fashion literate, perfectly manicured, buffed and polished. They volunteer 40 hours a week and have three successful businesses. They’ve been happily married for 40 years and have passionate sex every day… with the same person! They have no bad habits, have abundant, deep friendships and are paperless.
They are one with nature, they know and pursue their passions, they love small children and puppies and win at everything. They are never sad, stressed, angry or depressed. They have eliminated the “I shoulds” from their vocabularies, and these enviable MOFOs have replaced them with “I dids!”
Some of them even write books to try and educate the rest of the world on living The Right Way. I really want to live The Right Way, so I have bought and read most of these books. From the plethora of reading I have completed thus far, I’ve learned to live fearlessly, with integrity, let go of the past, embrace change and how to seize the power of now.
I have yet to find a book, however, that tells me how to actually put all of these great concepts into practice. (Further evidence of my abject incompetence at living The Right Way) It would have a title like” Living the Right Way For Dummies” or “Ten Steps to Put Every Piece of Advice Espoused by the Universes’ Inventory of Self Help Books Into Practice: That, or Die Alone and Miserable. Loser”.
I mean, that book would have all of the answers, and I would finally get this living The Right Way thing right! I would no longer fall short in any area of my life. In fact, I would be at the top of the happiness heap and everyone not living The Right Way (which is almost everybody) would look to me as the gold standard of living awesome-ness. Having perfected living The Right Way, I would then write a multi-step self-help book (not too many steps) to share the keys to mastery. It would title it: “I Did It and You Can Too! Living The Right Way in Five, Idiot Proof Steps”.
I must admit that I haven’t actually met anyone living The Right Way. (That doesn’t mean they don’t exist!) Even some people I’ve met, who I thought were living The Right Way, turned out to have significant points of unhappiness or regret in their lives.
I recently attended a seminar about Emotional Intelligence. I could use a few IQ points in this realm and was enthralled by the engaging and charismatic instructor. Later, the group gathered at a bar to get shit-faced, and I had an opportunity to talk with her. I was eager to learn more about her, so sure was I that I had finally met someone who was truly living The Right Way.
Sidling up to the bar beside her, I started with, “Wow! Great seminar!” She eyed me over the rim of her mug, nodding in thanks as she took a long draw on her beer. “Gosh, it must be so awesome for you, knowing all this stuff! You really must have it all together!”
She momentarily choked on her beer. Coughing slightly, she slowly put her drink down. Wiping beer-infused spittle from her chin, she turned to me slowly and replied, “Honey, I don’t have anything together!”
My eyebrows popped to the top of my forehead. What? How could this be true? She seemed so knowledgeable. She knew so many cool anecdotes and shared several easy to employ tools that I could use to guarantee the desired outcomes in my life! I downed my margarita and stared at her blankly.
Then I started to wonder … what if there isn’t anybody out there who knows The Right Way to live? My breath caught and a thought unbidden rose to the surface of my endless internal dialogue. What if there is no such thing as The Right Way to live?
I dropped down on an empty bar stool, astonishment overcoming my one-drink buzz. What if this whole thing is some made up ideal that we all use to convince ourselves that we aren’t good enough, at anything? What if no matter how accomplished or healthy we become, we just keep raising the imaginary bar to ensure that we never actually Have it All?
Who are these imaginary people, living the supposed “Right Way“? Have I simply conjured them up as false reference points, against which I compare all of my supposed failings — in order to validate my self-flagellating judgments?
Suddenly, I looked up. What if we are all just creating a made-up reality based solely on what we imagine life should be like? Aren’t we all just looking at each other for the answers? There wasn’t any life-manual handed out at birth.
Maybe the cultural expectation that “girls in America shave their legs” is really just some made-up thing we randomly decided makes chicks sexier and demonstrates good hygiene? Could we have just as easily decided to bind our feet or pierce our lips with large splinters of wood to demonstrate feminine beauty? (I suppose, since other cultures have.) What if there actually is no right or wrong, no good or bad? What if people had more choices than being ideal?
I realized in that moment that all of humanity is fully committed to the idea that someone out there knows how to be “ideal”, whether it’s an ideal mother, an ideal wife or an ideal friend. I grew more concerned by how easily we jump on these bandwagons of ideal, not unlike lemmings jumping off of a cliff.
Advertising gurus guide us toward these ideals. Wear these clothes! Follow these trends, and stop cussing. Are these just rules for belonging? And if they are, who sets them? What is their motive for setting them, and why I am I so damn willing to follow along? (My willingness most likely reinforces them; helps the ideals take hold.) How else can you explain the popularity of Silly Bands or Uggs?
“Can I get you anything else?” the bartender asks, snapping me out of my thoughts. I ordered a gluten-free kale salad and another margarita.
As long as I continue to believe in an ideal, a Right Way of living, I will never allow myself to be good enough at anything. I will continue to doubt my choices and compare what I have (or haven’t) accomplished to imaginary others who I probably wrongly assume are always one step ahead of me in their know-how-to life.
Stunned, I began to wonder, “What if I am doing just fine?” What if the path of my life is exactly right for me, the sum of my choices, none of which are right or wrong, they just are? I realized that we are all just guessing. We are all searching silently for guidance, and along the way we have somehow turned our quest into a belief that there are actually answers to our questions.
In that moment I knew that my life was simply the culmination of choices. In a moment of disappointed awareness, I knew that most of these choices I had surrendered to others. Whether to the fictional cultural ideal I belong to or to the imaginary “shoulds” and expectations of others who I had blessed with my acceptance. Was my life about pleasing others or pleasing myself? My mind would not allow me to ponder that for very long because I was sure I knew the answer.
With this new clarity, new possibilities started to emerge. I looked up in time to see the bartender putting in my order. “Excuse me?” I called a little too loudly.
Startled, he turned to me, “Can I help you?”
“Do you have any brownies?” I asked.
“I am pretty sure we do,” he replied, ” I can check for you.”
“Great!” I said, a smile touching upon my face. “If you do, could you throw a couple on my salad?”
Julie Warren is a blogger and writer who calls the Rocky Mountains of Colorado home. Published online and in print, the “Tell Me Mamma” blog topics of interest include ontology, or what it is to be human, how to be your best self and pubic hair (not necessarily in that order).