The road goes ever on and on.
Originally published November 3, 2015.
One of the biggest differences I've noticed about being a thirty-something compared to a twenty-something is an increasing amount of self-awareness. At some point a few years back, I started to understand some things about my personality and nature that I could no longer deny might just have something to do with the disagreements and frustrations I was dealing with in life. It's kind of an amazing, thing, really - all of a sudden, a switch seems to flip and it's no longer possible to defend yourself. You look in the mirror and realize, "Oh, my God. I'm a real asshole sometimes." Don't feel bad, we all are.
Once you accept that you're a little bit of an asshole here and there (which can take a while, depending on how bad it is - I'd say for me it took about a year), you can start to pick apart the problems. Okay, "problems" is a pretty negative term. Challenges. You can start to spot and dissect the challenging aspects of your personality. For me, it turns out I'm a wee bit bossy and a bit of a know-it-all, and I really like to tell people how to fix their problems even if they're not really interested in my opinion. Sure, those things may stem from nicer qualities, like being perceptive and caring, but you know what? Sometimes you can be a perceptive and caring ASSHOLE. That's life.
So, you accept that you're a total jerk sometimes, you admit to yourself your most irritating habits and qualities, and you begin the long, difficult journey to curbing that shit when it's necessary. There will be lots of bumps along the way, but your friends and family will be so happy and hopeful that they might not have to deal with these traits as often that they'll stick by your side while you ride the roller coaster of Learning to Be a Better Human. It might seem hard to believe, but they will, just as long as you're honest and you make sure to thank them a lot along the way.
I like to imagine that, one day in the not-too distant future, I'll reach a point of cognizance and discernment about myself that completely eliminates all of my bad behavior. And accordingly, I'll never find myself in another uncomfortable situation that I'll look back on, whether instantly or years later, shake my head and say, "I was such a jackass that night."
Tall order, I know.
I'm at the point where I can tell I'm being a jerk, right after the fact and even sometimes in the middle of it...but I can't prevent it yet. And I really need to figure out a way to not beat myself up about that, because I'm still on the journey. It's a process, like learning to drive. You may have all the tools in front of you and know exactly how to operate them, but it still takes trial and error behind the wheel, so to speak, for your instincts to kick in, so you know what to do when something comes up. It's not even something you can learn, you just have to do it, over and over again. Most of us had a series of fender-benders when we first started driving, and maybe even occasionally now that we've been doing it for years, when we get too complacent and take for granted that we know how this works.
I wonder how we can free ourselves of the internal fight that occurs inside us after a slip-up, a loss of temper, a hastily made remark, a careless insult. When the portions of my personality I'm working to improve show themselves, it feels terrible, like I don't have control over myself, like I should know how to better manage my own mind. But sometimes, I mess up. My temper flares much too easily, I cry when I'm sad and also when I'm angry, which is confusing for anyone in the room with me. I pout, I become sullen and closed off, as if I were still a child waiting for someone else to take the blame. I retreat inside myself, going deeper into the darker part of my mind, where I don't like anything about what I say or think, or how I behave toward others. Words escape my lips that I didn't plan, which is one of my biggest fears, that I might do something I couldn't plan or control. All of this is as jarring and painful at thirty-five as it was at twenty-five. It just doesn't last as long.
But still, I wonder, when will I grow up? When will I have control?
I'm starting to think the answer is never. Which means I have to find a way to free myself from the expectation that someday, through hard work and determination, I'll perfect myself. It's too impossible a goal to live up to, and yet, I'm not sure how to let it go. It would be better, I think, to modify my goal to just being better than I am today.
The good news is, the road is long, and I have lots of time. All the time in the world to figure out how this machine I'm in is built, how it ticks, what makes it break down, what keeps it running smoothly. Hopefully the scrapes and dents will become fewer, not just to my own body and heart, but to the people around me I love so much, who are the last people I want to injure on my journey. Years and miles to understand that they don't mind being bumped around now and then; they just want to be along for the ride.
And in return, I can at least try to remember that I don't always have to drive this car. I can be the passenger sometimes, I can take a back seat to my own brain and just be there for someone else. I can accept their mistakes as reminders of our humanity, and in doing so, forgive myself just a tiny bit.
The road is too long to go it alone.