Before I had my nervous breakdown in the 90s, having worked in the mental health field with adolescent offenders, and having taught anger management courses and scored kids against a list of "thinking errors" in the name of teaching them self-assessment skills, I found myself in a position where I felt a human being was honor bound to be as good a person as they were capable of being.
Part of it was my Christian upbringing, which although I had already become agnostic, I was very conscious was still a large part of the reason I had become the person I was. Part of it was in response to the years of teasing and abuse from my classmates in school. It was a challenge to myself that I would show them all (and perhaps myself) by being a better person than they ever were. Part of it was that I felt I had been given a gift as a counselor and friend to all, and had to be no burden on anyone else so I could instead take on their burdens, be the Good Samaritan, the caregiver, the man people wrote soliloquies about when you died.
I never got angry, I just felt a sadness that there was pain in the world.
I never allowed myself selfish wants and desires.
And when I made a mistake, I made sure to feel really, really bad about it. And I did.
When I let my hormones get the best of me on a hot, frisky night, and I didn't hear the word "no" the way I should have, not to the point of actually crossing any lines, but definitely to the point where a woman who had already experienced sexual trauma felt suddenly retraumatized, and I didn't see it, didn't respond as I, as an advanced soul, should have, I felt such shame. I felt like the lowest of the low.
When I, not knowing I had ADD, but knowing instead that I was clearly very intelligent and creative, and interested in so many things, could not reconcile that knowledge with the fact that I was getting Cs, and even sometime Ds or incompletes in school, I became increasingly despondent. I felt like I was an imposition on more than just the people who had such hopes for me, like my parents and my very intelligent friends. I began to feel I was an imposition on the world.
When, after nearly three years in the mental health industry, it became increasingly clear that I was not going to advance in stature and salary until I had at least a Master's degree, but that I wasn't going to get that Master's degree until I finished my Bachelor's, and that wasn't going to happen while I was taking fewer courses each semester, but I couldn't seem to manage to take those courses without becoming overwhelmed, and I had to work to pay bills, rent, food, car payments. Well, I began to wonder if perhaps the very oxygen I was breathing might be better breathed by other people.
When my writing, on which I increasingly began to pin my hopes of justifying my very existence, increasingly became lack-luster, bland, repetitive, dry and (gasp!) uninspired, I lost the last of my hope. My muse had died, or perhaps had even abandoned me for someone else.
I now officially had nothing to give the universe.
I was eating the universe's food. Breathing its air. Accepting the goodwill and high aspirations and terrific compliments and "Wow you are such a good actor, a good writer, wow you're smart", and I was giving it nothing in return.
I. Was. A fraud.
And this was a great insult to my very essential sense of identity. I was a higher soul, with a sense of purpose, a gift to give, and I was pissing on it and throwing it away.
Perhaps, in this light, it might make sense that I became suicidal, despondent, lost in a hazy cloud of shame and doubt and cynicism. Smart, creative, and unable to do anything with it worthy of the man I felt I should be.
Perhaps, on the other hand, someone might conclude I was melodramatic, and they would likely be right. But melodrama is not melodrama to the person experiencing the pain. The pain is very real, the shame, the quandary of being responsible for being better than you clearly are.
Anyhow, the suicidal impulses and depression were very real, more real that the doctor on the psych ward where I checked myself in would admit to my mother. ("He wasn't really suicidal." Yeah, right.)
Bear with me. There is a point to this.
Recovery, for me, began with a most curious realization.
It is okay to be flawed.
It is okay to be human.
The real fraud is to think that you are a higher soul with grand gifts and great responsibilities.
The real tragedy is to consume oneself so much with the need to be grand, amazing, gracious, generous, even-keeled, wise and always right-minded, right-hearted, unselfish. The greatest mistake we can make is that any mistake or base motive we have is somehow an indication that we are docked against some cosmic scorecard, that karma has just revved its motor, and it's waiting in the wings for the opportunity for me to step into the street so it can run me over. That God just frowned and wrote a memo to St. Peter. That Santa just transfered my name to the bad list.
The greatest gift we can give ourselves is permission to be human. Flawed. Imperfect. Impatient, grumpy, and yes even hypocritical.
I celebrate being a hypocrite. I actually do. You can ask most of my friends, because I have preached it more than once.
I zealously protect my right to be angry sometimes. To stand up for myself, only to realize later on that I was in the wrong, that someone else was under undue burden, and I only made things worse by getting uppity and snippety and snivelly.
I am not perfect, and that's fine.
The measure of a person is not the ability to get by with the grace of a ballet dancer in all things. Perfect people freak me out. People that have every hair in place, that seem calm and eternally happy, unflappable, poised. Those people are the people I watch, because I know that they will have one hell of a collapse, and it will truly be epic in proportion.
I recently read of a notion of a form of enlightenment in Buddhist circles that is, at best, temporary. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about it in Eat, Pray, Love. The idea is that, on the path of meditation and reflection, one will occasionally meet the universe, taste the "oneness" of enlightenment, feel at peace and truly, at last, understand. Everything.
And then the feeling will fade, hunger and illness will eat away at the equanimity, people with annoying rasps in their voices will begin to talk just 5 seconds longer than you really are prepared to handle, mosquitoes will begin to bite, and you begin to care about that again, bill collectors and phone marketers begin to call on your cell phone, deadlines demand your attention, and you very steadily begin to lose your shit and become a very unenlightened being and finally one day you might snap at a cashier, say something quite offensive to a loved and cherished friend, be very insensitive to someone you love.
And that's all right.
You're not a bad person.
You are a glorious human being who goes through cycles who is occasionally strong, occasionally not and wants, really wants, really does want to be a better person.
But isn't yet.
Our flaws don't define us. And sometimes, the task at hand isn't to become perfect, but to develop a sense of humor, like one would show to a five year old who can't quite master dancing and keeps tumbling most gracelessly onto the couch, to laugh, and hold the child, to hold "you" in loving arms and say the simple phrase:
"That's okay. You're allowed to be imperfect. I think you are glorious just the way you are."