“Perfect isn’t that interesting to watch. In fact, it can be both boring and exhausting. What we like to see is human.” –Frances Cole Jones
In a book I had to review recently, the author wrote, and not necessarily with contempt, that social media has made us all exhibitionists and opened the way for everyone to make public confessionals. There is truth in this. And the result is a lot of noise in a world already overflowing with information.
When I asked some women friends and acquaintances to help contribute to this blog, they balked (even the two who are currently contributing). The idea of flinging their personal lives onto the Internet for their parents, their friends, their neighbors to read…and judge…seemed a little bit scary. “What if I offend someone? What if I make someone mad?” Of course, having been a journalist and columnist for many years, I know that stirring up the pot is often the whole point. If you’re not offending someone or making someone mad at least some of the time, you probably don’t stand for much, and you’re probably not making much of a difference in anyone’s life either.
But is it all, in the end, just self-serving and self-magnifying noise? Well, it depends. There is a place for the public confessional. I think of Brooke Shields’ book Down Came the Rain, where she talked about her own struggle with postpartum depression. I think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which chronicled her trials with recovering from divorce, lost love, and daring to love again. I think of Isabel Gillies’ It Happens Every Day, where she acknowledged her own responsibility in her ex-husband’s extramarital affair. And I think of Youngme Moon’s Difference, where she talked about the day she decided to stop teaching the way everyone else was teaching and how it changed her life and the lives of her students. These books fit the category of public confessional, and how glad am I these women confessed.
Their confessions have made me (and others, too, no doubt) feel less alone on this journey called life. And they have taught me new ways of thinking about and approaching my own existence. Knowing someone else has tried and failed and tried again…differently…gives me hope in moments when hope seems hard to come by.
Some of my friends and acquaintances will be surprised–those who think I limit myself to great, dead literary authors like William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Elizabeth Gaskell. But all these books, literary fiction and popular memoir, have something critical in common. Perhaps no one can set a scene like Thomas Hardy. And perhaps no one can jar our senses with “hit that nail on the head” meaning like Faulkner. But they are, in the end, all public confessionals–cutting open the writer’s view of the heart of life, whether achieved through fact or fiction. And these confessionals change us.
So let me confess….
I started this blog because I realized I had it too good in some ways.
Trained by experience to establish rapport with sources by finding that rock of shared experience that would make them trust me, I have been the recipient of more than a few confessionals over the years. And what I discovered from that and from the tools of journalism that I have transferred over to my relationships with friends and colleagues is that everyone has a story, many stories most likely, that they are dying to tell, need to tell. They are just waiting for the audience…the audience that often never comes. They want someone to walk into their lives who gives a damn, really, honestly gives a damn. Because life is hard, and life is scary, and isolation is the surest path to eternal torment.
I have received confessionals on a scale far deeper than any Catholic priest’s. And it has not, as you might imagine, given me a front row seat to the hidden melodrama of people’s lives. Rather, having that window into people’s souls has given me a window into my own. It has given me the courage to acknowledge my own failures, learn from them, and pass the lessons on.
The assistant instructor at the dance studio where I take lessons twice a week often remarks when teaching choreography she has just learned herself, “Let me act like I know what I’m doing here.” And we chuckle with some relief, glad perhaps to know that someone else is “winging it” besides ourselves.
I can recall having done the same as a young Humanities professor, teaching the history of early Western Culture, a subject well outside my area of expertise, a subject in which I struggled to stay a step ahead of my students. They thought I was the expert. How wrong they were. Yet I never let on that I had about as much expertise in the origins of Islam as the Walmart greeter.
But I grew up, as many of us do, with the idea that perfection is the goal. After all, the Bible (a centerpiece of western culture whether you are Christian or not) enjoins us to “be perfect as thy Father in heaven is perfect.” I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but this world we live in is far from perfect, and if you think God created it, then I guess you also have to figure He wasn’t perfect or that He was intentionally imperfect. So I think it’s probably perfectly okay and well within your rights if you are religious to perform imperfectly in this world. It might even be you were meant to do so.
That’s not an easy idea to get used to, however. Some of my most well-educated and seemingly level-headed friends still strive for perfection, still attempt to hide imperfection even from the people they love most in the world. How many times have you watched yourself go through the motions of cheerfulness when you did not truly feel it? How many times have you told your boss you can handle that project, no problem, when on the inside you’re terrified that you have no idea what you’re doing?
We all lie to each other…and sometimes to ourselves for the sake of civility. But where does civility stop and honesty begin? It is a difficult question.
I have a lifetime of experience in “acting like I know what I’m doing here.” I write articles that people trust to be accurate and true even when I myself am sleep deprived and pulling through with the aid of caffeine alone. I write columns that are supposed to inspire people to get off their rears and do something with their lives even when I haven’t the slightest idea what I’m doing with mine half the time. A friend of mine remarked to me not long after I’d returned from three consecutive trips that had me zooming through seven different time zones in the course of a month, “I wish I could live your life for a day.”
Perhaps it looks grand from where she is sitting. From where I am sitting, it often looks downright ridiculous.
There was a time, not too terribly long ago, when I felt some not entirely sane obligation to offer the appearance at least of the perfect life. I thought that, by virtue of the fact I had followed a childhood dream to fruition, it was my duty to inspire others to do the same—to make it look rewarding and wonderful to follow one’s heart. And it is. But not all the time. Not by a long stretch. Sometimes I feel like I am hanging onto my dreams with a tiny piece of thread that is slowly fraying.
We all feel that way, of course, at one time or another. But rarely will you find a person willing to admit it, unless you are interviewing her for an article on overcoming doubt. Most of us, for the most part, still hide behind our carefully constructed and often ridiculously transparent veils of perfection.
An acquaintance of mine said this is necessary, that we cannot bare our souls to the world. What an awkward place it would be. He has a point. You know those people on Facebook who announce to the world when they’re having a nervous breakdown? Yep, that’s a little creepy, I have to acknowledge. I’ve “unfriended” a few of those. It can be uncomfortable, at times, to have a front row seat to imperfection.
But maybe that’s only because we are not used to it. My jury is still out on that.
And though I’ve never given much heed to New Year’s resolutions, I might give it a go this year. My new purpose in life will be to be an inspiration, not by being perfect, but by being human…and being very good at it.