The bigger disappointment

My seven-year-old daughter agreed to sing a solo for a crowd this weekend.

As her accompanist, I helped her practice. We walked through how to recover if she got lost. We played a game that gave her the feel for letting the accompanist follow, even if she skipped a line. She was ready.

Before we left home, she said she didn’t want to sing after all. She’d never sung solo before. What if she messed up and felt embarrassed?

After I heard her worries, I told her she had two choices:

  • To cancel and not have to worry about singing anymore.
  • To feel nervous and get up in front of everyone and try.

She grimaced at both. So I said:

Either one’s fine. Now imagine I just told you that you don’t have to sing, you don’t have to worry about it. I’ll just get up and play a song on the piano instead and nobody will know you decided not to. Imagine I just told you you’re not singing. How do you feel?

If she had said relieved, I’d let her off the hook.

But she said: I feel disappointed.

Sometimes we back out of what calls to us because we fear disappointment, without acknowledging that the disappointment for not following through is bigger (and more certain).

So she went. She walked to the microphone and she took a breath and she turned and nodded to me that she was ready and she sang in her clearest voice and after she finished, after we both walked to our seats, she grabbed my hand and smiled and whisper-giggled over and over:

I did it.
I did it.
I did it.

I asked her if she was disappointed that she’d done it. She was not.

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Risk the humbling

We bought a car off the internet and failed to note (until the car was delivered to our door) that it had a manual transmission.

I’d driven stick exactly twice in my life, for a collective 25 minutes.

So I watched some youtube videos and recruited my husband as teacher and pulled out of the driveway, heart pounding, nerves jittering. What surprised me most was how long it had been since I’d done something that made me feel truly nervous. I thought I learned new things and risked my ego all the time, but maybe I do so less than I thought.

New to this skill, I failed in obvious and public ways.

I killed the car twice in the morning drop-off line at my kid’s school. In the afternoon pick-up line, I had to stop on a tiny incline and only got started again by revving too dramatically for an elementary school parking lot. Humbled, I waved at the people honking at me and tried again.

Eventually, I’ll drive this car without even thinking about it. But for now, successfully easing into first gear feels like a tiny victory every time.

The nervousness I felt about driving this car was so distinct that I can’t help but consider what else I’m not trying for fear of being humbled, what I’m not risking for fear of failure, what I’m not learning because it’s too new. I can’t help but consider all the other cars I’ve left in the metaphorical garage and what it would take to put them in first gear and start down the street.

Where do the wolves come from? (Questions after Las Vegas. And now Texas. And all the others…)

We call them lone wolves.

As if they are monsters that emerge from the forest, suddenly and inevitably. As if they are not people, but animals whose motives we will never be able to decipher.

*

In 1945, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to 8 years in a Russian labor camp. He wrote about his and others’ experiences in a book I’m reading, The Gulag Archipelago. The conditions he describes are horrific, the loss of human life unimaginable, and the violence doled out by interrogators and prison guards absolutely chilling.

He was victimized over and over by human beings who enacted violence without any visible remorse. Wolves.

He condemned their actions, obviously, as any moral person would. But he also refused to speak as if they were less than human. He wrote:

“As the folk saying goes: If you speak for the wolf, speak against him as well.

Where did this wolf-tribe appear from among our people? Does it really stem from our own roots? Our own blood? 

It is our own.

And just so we don’t go around flaunting too proudly the white mantle of the just, let everyone ask himself: ‘If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner?’ It is a dreadful question if one really answers it honestly.”

It is a question I shrink from. I compare myself to the man who shot up Las Vegas and see no obvious similarities. But I inquire anyway about what might be monstrous in me, what violence I might be capable of, if not hemmed in by society or empathy or law or love.

To ask those questions, to know those answers, helps me be a person whose choices are actual choices, not just default docility.

*

In the week since Las Vegas, plenty of people have talked about guns (edit: and will talk about them after Sutherland and beyond). And yes, let’s talk about guns. It’s a worthy conversation, especially if we all keep our ears and hearts open to each other. 

But if guns remain the only focal point, I can’t help but think we’ve arrived on the scene too late.

I can’t help but ask: 

What path does a person take to arrive at the 32nd story of a hotel with murderous intent? How does a person twist his heart before he aims a gun at a crowd? Which environments and traits and traumas and choices combine for a person to attack hundreds of people he doesn’t even know? 

We call these actions senseless violence. 

But we must make sense of them if we intend to create a world where wolves no longer scatter crowds.

It’s becoming a matter of survival to ask: What is it about us—all together—that produces people who act out their despair or blistering rage with gunfire?

Why are some of us growing up to be wolves?

*

I’m not excusing that man’s responsibility. He stood at a window and put his finger to a trigger. Responsibility for the horror he rained down on a crowd is his alone. 

But as we move forward after yet another tragedy, I wonder how we can each take our own responsibility.

In conversations online, I’ve seen angry, heartbroken, astonished reactions lead to connection and thoughtful action, which seems exactly right to me. But in other conversations about how to prevent this kind of tragedy, I’ve seen a disheartening number of dismissive, condescending, even vile responses to disagreement (sometimes from people I know personally). No side of the political spectrum has exempted itself from words of contempt, words that mock and demean and dehumanize. Some even wish for violence or tragedy to befall the people they disagree with.

(I cannot be smug myself. When reading horrible words, even if I don’t engage, a part of me has hated the words enough that I hated a part of the person saying them. So I’m complicit, too.)

What is it about us—all together—that’s producing wolves?

Not just words. Obviously.

Not just disagreement on social media. Obviously.

Like the violence itself, those are just manifestations of whatever we still have within us that is divisive or self-righteous or lonely or inhuman or cruel.

We can legislate safeguards into place, but if we’re broken as a culture, if we’re violent as a nation, if we lack empathy as a people, then we’ll careen right through the guardrails. 

*

I don’t know the mindset of a wolf.

But I imagine that someone trying to obliterate as much humanity as possible before turning to self-annihilation has to be living out a chilling sort of nihilism. Every bullet might be a declaration of meaninglessness, a sort of revenge on those who walk around in a life worth living. Shooting into a crowd of strangers may be a violent shout into the dark that nothing matters.

What gives me hope are all the voices calling out, saying, no, no, no, these people matter, these people mean something. Hear their names. See their faces. 

Enough of us care, which means this kind of violence is not inevitable. 

So what should we do?

The good or generous or courageous thing we each feel called to.

Refuse senselessness. Enact peace in every interaction. Donate blood. Look people in the eye. Tell the truth. Have the conversations that burn inside you without burning the people you have them with. Insist on seeing people as people, even idiots on Facebook who don’t agree with you—especially them. 

Say with what you do: you matter, you matter, you mean something. Yes, you.

Perfect will paralyze you

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor… It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life… I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die.” —Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

If anything halts me, it’s perfectionism.

I’ve written entire books that stay unpublished in a drawer because I’ve deemed them not “good enough.”

I sometimes fail to speak up because I don’t know the perfect thing to say.

I don’t exercise enough because I haven’t perfected my exercise plan. (Good excuse, eh?)

Enough.

Today, I will practice embracing the imperfect and moving forward with good enough.

Today’s the day to let perfectionism go and make something gloriously flawed.

What are you waiting for?

Last weekend, I flew to another state to gather with my co-workers, who also work in other states. Together, we put on a festive, 2-day event for a few hundred of our company’s best customers.

One particular co-worker, I see in online meetings all the time. But I rarely get to see her in action. This weekend, I saw her do in person what she normally does online: answer questions, point people in the right direction, make them feel like the most important person she’s ever talked to.

Watching her, I realized:

I often wait to do good in the world, as if I’m holding out to have more resources or more know-how or more whatever-I-think-I-need to have a big impact.

She doesn’t wait.

She does all the good she can, right where she is, with whomever she is.

Waiting has its benefits. But when it comes to loving people, I’m not sure those benefits apply. I watched my co-worker, my friend, move from person to person all weekend, shining a light of attention on each one she spoke with. In contrast, I recognized my own reluctance, the arm’s length at which I often hold people, my hesitation to do the small, simple kindnesses in front of my face. Sometimes I wait to do the good that calls to me. Who knows why.

What might happen if we all stop waiting?

Who I wished to be

One morning, in fourth grade, my teacher told us to pick up our chairs and follow her outside.

We were going to watch a demonstration.

I didn’t know then what the demonstration would be and I can’t remember now what it was (a model rocket launch?) because something else happened to fill that space in my memory.

My class lined up our chairs in a row on the blacktop where we usually played foursquare. Then we sat and waited as the rest of the fourth grade filed out, carrying their blue and orange plastic chairs, forming rows behind us.

It felt like a long time to sit in the sun. I counted how many kids wore Birkenstock sandals.

Emily also waited somewhere in the row of chairs. She was one of the most fantastic girls in our class. She made everybody smile and her hair swooped away from her face in a way I couldn’t replicate. From where I sat, I saw her stand up about ten chairs down the line. She turned to face the kids near her and sang a little song and did the silliest dance and they all laughed and laughed.

Her song and their laughter brought up a wish in me, as bright and burning as the sun over our heads:

I wish I could do that.

I could, of course, do that. I considered it. I imagined standing up right then and doing exactly what Emily had done. I pictured the movements I would make. And because I hadn’t heard the words she’d said, I tried imagining my own.

But then I realized that I didn’t just want to stand up and do a dance that everyone laughed at. I didn’t want to just copy Emily. I wanted to be the kind of person who would do what she did, easily, without overthinking—the way I was overthinking right then.

The wish changed: I wish I could BE Emily.

So badly. The strength of that wish flared up in my throat and made it tight.

And then came the stomach-clenching recognition right after it: I would never be her. Goofing around came to Emily as effortlessly as breathing. For me, it did not. While waiting, Emily’s natural impulse was to get up and do a silly dance. That idea would never have come to me had I not seen Emily do it first, had I not seen how her silly faces made everyone love her.

I longed, all that day, to be a person other than who I was.

That longing took away the rest of the day. We fourth graders were outside to witness an unusual thing, but I couldn’t tell you what it was. That morning is still etched in my mind, but the actual reason we went outside is lost to me.

That longing follows me to other parts of my life sometimes—a wish to be stronger, funnier, prettier, more admired. But those wishes never actually makes me stronger, funnier, prettier or more admired. They just take away the time I could use being the best version of myself.

I picture that quiet, lovely nine-year-old on her orange chair, looking down the line at the class clown she’ll never be. She doesn’t see that her best friend is sitting right next to her and they could be giggling. She doesn’t notice the wide, shining sky or the sunlight warming her arm. She doesn’t recognize what a glorious thing it is to be nine and still new in the world and completely herself. Instead, she’s aching to be loud and hilarious because she believes that’s how to be loved.

I want to tell her: Honey, don’t. It’s too beautiful a day to waste time wishing you were someone else.

Surplus September

Taken together, the world’s chaos is all too much.

Too much anger, too much uncertainty, too much belligerence between heads of state, too much contempt on the internet, too much violence, too much ignorance—even too much rain.

I ask what I can even do in the face of a world like this.

*

Every month or so, I choose a theme to focus my thoughts. I’m calling this month Surplus September. It’s a dumb name, but it’s an easy, two-word reminder of what I want to practice in the next few weeks.

Surplus: more than sufficient, an amount of something left over when requirements have been met.

I keep myself fairly busy doing fairly good things. I work for a company that helps people. I try to be a good parent and spouse and friend. I generally meet the requirements of my commitments.

But what if I go beyond the bounds of what feels required.

Required: Pick my daughter up from school. Surplus: Put away my phone for the hours between pickup and dinner time to be present with her.

Required: Show up prepared for a work meeting. Surplus: Actively make that meeting more enjoyable for myself and people in it.

Every inch of surplus adds territory to a better world, expands my own capacity for good.

*

What do you want more of? Create some of it right where you are.

If you want peace, talk to someone you disagree with, treat them like a human. Brush up on your geography.

If you want a variety of voices to be heard, listen to a variety of people. Read books they wrote.

If you want safety and comfort, consider how safe or comfortable people feel to be themselves around you. Donate to flood victims in India and Texas.

*

This weekend, after starting to write this post, I argued with my husband. While I wrote at my computer, my daughter interrupted me and I snapped at her: When do I ever get a minute to just finish a complete thought?

This month already offers a surplus of opportunities to practice.

*

I can’t change the world, but I can change myself. And the changes I make in myself over time may change the sliver of the world I’m in.