Thursday, January 28, 2010

I'd Be Fine If...

A friend said I looked exuberant in a recent photograph. Exuberant. What a contrast between the me I am becoming at 49 and the me I was 10 or so years ago, when I sometimes evidently appeared so glum that even strangers, bless their hearts, would walk up to me and say, “Smile.”

Not that it did any good. Instead of being inspired to look up from the ground and acknowledge other people once in a while—people who might already feel invisible enough—I felt attacked and withdrew even more.

In my defense, my face does naturally have a hound-dog quality about it. Everything--my eyebrows, eyes and mouth--it all slopes downward. So I wasn't frowning, I told myself. And no, I did not have a pretty good anger issue brewing inside of me, anger that over time had fermented then flattened to resentment.

I would scream about my job alone in my car so I didn't scare my neighbors, and the love of my life seemed forever inclined to not get married. The world felt unfair, demanding, and infuriating. People seemed mean, thoughtless, and rude. But no, I was not frowning.

Even as I write this I am still amazed at how I believed that the reason for my state was that everybody else was so screwed up.

I remember once ranting about my job to my mother and, her eyes as wide as quarters, her suggesting, “Why don't you just be peaceful?”

Be peaceful? Be peaceful? Wasn't it obvious if I could do "peaceful" I wouldn't be standing there whining?

By the time I was 39 I was finally married to that love of my life and doing what I had always wanted, writing. But I was still walking around staring at the ground and blaming the world for the things I didn't want and the things I wanted but still didn't have. My wants seemed to multiply as soon as a want got granted.

And then I got a want I hadn't expected. Her name was Jane. You'd have thought she had it all, with her attitude. And she did. All the challenging stuff. The unhappy marriage to an alcoholic husband, insane mother, kleptomania, weight issues, low self esteem. She was also pretty, smart, generous, funny and had a great career, although one she hated.

But Jane refused to blame anyone but herself for her mental state or her circumstances. And if Jane had gotten herself into all of this then Jane—with the help of God, a counselor, 12-step meetings and whatever else it took—would get herself out of it, too.

Jane had the spirit and determination of a fighter, but she was a lover. She loved others even with their imperfections and herself enough to work hard at getting well. And that love, even in the midst of her temporary bouts of frustration with herself, absolutely radiated from her, soothing me like the warm fire I had needed and never knew.

Gradually, because of Jane's example and that of others like her—their gratitude, answerableness, acceptance of others and self-effacing humor—I am learning to change my attitude. One day five or so years ago I even noticed I wasn't looking at the ground as much. I was looking strangers in the eye and it felt good.

I haven't seen Jane in awhile, not since she got divorced, moved away and remarried, so I decided to send her an e-mail. Within a day she e-mailed me back.

She said she's divorced again, but has left that career she hated to do the kind of work she enjoys. And I could tell her humor is as strong as ever, as is her forgiveness.

And again she showed me something I needed to see: that if Jane can keep trying and stumbling and forgiving herself then I can, too.

As much as I wish I didn't, I do sometimes fall back into feeling sorry for myself. But at least I don't do it as often anymore or for as long and that's good.

It really does help when I focus on what I have instead of what I don't--something to do with filling my brain with positive thoughts so there isn't any space for the negative.

Smiling doesn't hurt either.

Question: How are you or are you not taking responsibility for your mind-set?

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