We humans, but especially we Americans, believe in self-improvement. God bless us, we do. We believe in better, faster, thinner. We believe in six-pack abs. We believe in firm and tight. We believe in younger. We believe in living life to the fullest. We believe the sky’s the limit. We believe there’s nothing we can’t do if we put our minds to it.
We believe in second and third chances. We believe in as many chances as the world will give us. We believe in picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off. We believe in getting right back on that horse. We don’t give up. We read books and blog posts (like this one) and attend retreats and seminars that teach us how to succeed, how to live longer, how to find our true selves, how to meditate, how to put down our phones and be more mindful.
God bless us, we try. And we try.
As a writer, I fail way more than I succeed. And as a human, failure is a given. We fail ourselves and those we love in ways large and small. Our bodies, in the end, fail us.
But we keep trying. There’s something admirable about that. And, to be honest, a little heartbreaking. We poor humans are never quite enough for ourselves.
I know whereof I speak. I’m a born striver. I’ve spent most of my life trying to do better. Which means that I’ve spent most of my life not feeling quite good enough. Over the years I’ve amassed an impressive collection of self-help books. Because I’m a fiction writer whose shelves are filled with books by the likes of Virginia Woolf and Alice Munro, I’ve always been a little bashful about letting others know that I own so many self-help books and that I’ve found some of them, well, helpful. I’ve always kept them in boxes in my basement where no one could see them.
A few weeks ago, when my family moved, I had the opportunity to go through these boxes. All those self-help books told the story of a man who has spent years trying to improve himself, a man who is perhaps wiser and more peaceful in some ways, but still struggles with the same challenges and demons that led him to self-help books in the first place.
As I write this, I am sitting in my new house. My bookshelves are filled with hundreds of books, but way up high in a corner one shelf is reserved for the self-help books I decided to keep—a total of 12 (I just counted). I must have thrown away three times as many.
Lately, I’ve been trying hard not to try so hard. Which, of course, is an oxymoron. So perhaps a better way to put it is this: I’ve been trying my best to accept what is. I’ve discovered that when I’m able to accept reality, when what is is enough, an enormous weight lifts from my shoulders and I’m as close to free as I ever feel.
I know, I know, I’m still preaching self-improvement, but I see it as a different kind—a radical and mindful acceptance of reality.
The following five doses of reality may sound negative, but the catch is, they’re not; they’re actually liberating.
1. You may not be as talented as you think you are or would like to be.
Some days it seems that everyone in the world is writing a book or making a film or recording an album or trying to make it as an actor. And that’s fine. The practice of being creative is incredibly meaningful and rewarding. But not everyone has the talent to be successful to the same degree. And that’s okay.
2. You will fail more often than you succeed.
It’s important to set goals and to try our best. But success is not given. The process is really what matters. There is honor and even beauty in failure.
You may try and try and still never achieve the goals you set out to achieve. And that’s okay.
3. You are special, but not in the way you would like to think you are.
So many of us need to feel special. We want to feel important. We want to be admired and loved. It’s part of the reason why so many people want to be famous.
Every human life is singular and important, but no human life is more special than any other. Not even yours. And that’s okay.
4. Most of what happens in life is beyond your control.
You can try to plan your life, but your life has its own plans. We tend to fight against life’s detours even though they often end up being precisely what we need. Anything can happen to you at any time. And that’s okay.
5. Everything changes.
This is something we know on many levels, but perhaps not on the most important level. Nothing is permanent; everything passes; everything lives and dies. Even those you love most. Even you. It can be freeing to accept this difficult but unavoidable truth.
Only by imagining the alternative—a life in which nothing changes and everyone lives forever—are we able to see that change is what makes life precious. And that despite even this truth, it will be okay.
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