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Sunday, July 1, 2012

In praise of imperfection


My high school class will have its 20 year reunion later this year. At the time of our 10 year reunion, we phoned each other to give invitations and replies; fast-forward ten years and virtually everything is being done through a Reunion Page on Facebook. I’ve been able to reconnect with people I haven’t seen in years and view photos of our young selves, all without the reunion having even taken place yet!

Taking myself back twenty years has filled me with nostalgia, and yet has been painful in the extreme. Perhaps there are people whose teenage selves were carefree and confident and socially adept. I am not one of those people. As a teenager I had acne and bad clothes, and my parents drove a bomb of a car, and I was a nerd. Perhaps my one salvation was that I had a small group of truly great friends. My social standing was also helped somewhat by the fact that I was reasonably good at sport. Even so, I have lots of very negative memories of my high school years.

In one photo posted on Facebook, a group of us are sitting in school assembly, and for some reason I’m holding a piece of paper up to the camera. I glibly commented, “Why on earth am I holding up that piece of paper?” Someone replied, “Maybe it’s your straight-A report card! :-)”

I’m sure it was only meant as a joke, but reading that reply made me feel sick to the stomach, and the smiley at the end felt snide and poisonous (and for the record, I fricking well got a ‘B’ for mathematics! So there.)

I don’t particularly want to be remembered as someone who annoyed people by doing well at things. Perhaps that has weighed on me subconsciously over the years. Perhaps that’s why, since high school, I seem to have taken on lots of the kinds of open-ended challenges that can’t ever end in a perfect result – learning languages (Japanese and now Finnish), living in countries whose national language is not my own, being a parent, trying to make my mark in high-powered workplaces full of bilingual over-achievers…

I wish my former classmates could see me now. A one-time BigFirm lawyer who thought she could have it all but found herself burnt out and disillusioned (and nodding in agreement at certain long articles in the Atlantic about work-life balance that are somehow of only limited comfort). A mother yelling at her kids that bit too often. An immigrant, speaking Finnish less fluently than a child. An almost-middle-aged, unexceptional-looking woman with her hair hastily pulled into a ponytail. An average person living a quiet life in a faraway country.

On Friday, on the beach with my children, I was ambushed by a TV news reporter. Well, sort of. The reporter suddenly appeared from nowhere with her cameraman and asked, in Finnish, if they could film my children playing in the water. I agreed. A few moments later, suddenly she asked if she could do a short interview. I was feeling happy and relaxed in the sunshine. I was caught off guard by the request, and recklessly said yes. In the moment, I didn’t feel nervous speaking on camera, and I just tried to listen carefully to her questions and answer in simple sentences. Afterwards, though, I started to fret about my “performance”. Reflecting on my answers, several glaring grammatical errors jumped out at me. I started to feel a bit sick at the thought that friends might see the footage.

The footage did make it onto the evening news. I watched it with critical and judgmental eyes. While I was overjoyed to see my daughters’ summer fun captured beautifully by the camera, I wished so badly that they had cut out the part where I was speaking.

A few friends texted me immediately with excited and encouraging messages, while I struggled to calm down and get perspective. It wasn’t all that bad. I probably came across as a happy non-Finnish mum, enjoying the Helsinki summer with her children, and not being completely fluent in Finnish but having a go nevertheless. My Finnish was still comprehensible. I was smiling. I was pictured tentatively dipping my feet into the water, with my daughters on either side of me. Spontaneously, my younger daughter cheekily splashed me and the shock of the icy-cold water made me scream like a little girl. We looked energized and happy.

Maybe it was ok that my performance was less than perfect. Finns probably smiled to hear me try at their language. Fellow non-Finns probably smiled in sympathy at the difficulty of speaking correct Finnish, especially when put on the spot.

People who make mistakes and still keep trying, with a smile on their face, are more endearing than people who do things perfectly. This is a truth that I’m going to acknowledge and embrace from now on. It is okay and forgivable to make mistakes. 

We are all human and imperfect, and we need to remind ourselves of that. Here’s to being honest and light-hearted about our own shortcomings, even as we try to work on them. And here’s to being kinder and more generous towards people who experience moments of perfection in their otherwise human lives.

27 comments:

  1. Here here!!!! Kippis! LOVE this post! :-D

    Perfection is overrated indeed. :-) I agree that the more we learn to embrace our imperfections, the more we're able to embrace those imperfections in others. :-) But yeah, the road is long and winding 'coz I also can be too hard on myself every now and then. Let's just do it one day at a time. :-)

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    1. Amel, THANK YOU!!! We are all human, and we should allow ourselves (and each other) to be so. And yes, one day at a time sounds like an excellent strategy :)

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  2. This is very well written, I totally relate and understand. But I think I have overcome a lot of this feeling with one simple solution : I lowered my attainment marker! Seriously, I now regularly achieve perfection according to my definition of it. Anybody else going further are over-attainers and trying waaaay to hard :) By my standards it seems like you are ticking boxes all over the place. Also in my world of (occassionally) achieving self accepting, I removed myself from all school reunion pages, deleted all ex-school friends off my social contacts that aren't actually my true friends now and generally avoid that world of negative memories and comparisons. I'm finding avoidance and low standards are working just fantastic for me. I also regularly say I was put on this earth to make others feel good about themselves, I see it as a service I provide :)Strive to be Happy :)

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  3. Wow. Pretty sure I would have run in the other direction if a TV camera approached me. You absolutely deserve kudos for bravery, and for making yourself understood under pressure. Seriously, nicely done!

    While you're absolutely right that perfection isn't a requirement, and that imperfection can be very endearing, you should be proud of your good grades. I'm sure the person who made that comment was trying to give you a compliment. If he or she did write it with any residual resentment from the days of high school, well, that simply isn't your problem! :)

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    1. Thanks so much, Elena. I do hope that comment was meant in a nice way, and that I was just being overly sensitive. And you're so right - we should be proud when we do manage to do well at something, since achieving difficult goals is not easy and takes time and effort. I guess what I'm saying is that even while being proud of our accomplishments, we should be honest and open about things at which we've struggled. Often people put huge effort into things that don't work out the way they'd hoped, and it isn't encouraging for them to hear stories of people who seem to do well without ever falling down along the way. We do all fall down sometimes, though.

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    2. I'm all for honesty, and that's an excellent way to look at things for your own sake, too. You seem to be very honest in your writing, and you don't strike me the sort of person who'd rub their successes in the faces of others. I just hope you won't feel the need to downplay your accomplishments (or your failures) for your blog audience -- we love to read about it all!

      [And may I reiterate that you should be extremely proud of speaking Finnish in front of a TV camera!]

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    3. Oh Elena, you are so kind! :) THANK YOU!

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  4. One of the great things about getting older is that one becomes less and less concerned about what others think, and one becomes more oneself.

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    1. Telefinn, I really thought I was getting to that point, but my inner reaction to the events of this week have proved me wrong! However, what I've realised is that only part of my concern is with what others think about me. I also worry what others think about themselves. While people shouldn't be influenced by the lives of others, I think that we all still are, to a greater or lesser extent. For that reason, I think that the more honest we all are about our lives, in all their imperfection, the more comfortable we'll all be that "success" is not the be-all and end-all, and that all that really counts is making an effort.

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    2. Telefinn's point is only true of current things.
      Class reunions are a throwback to one's formative years. Everyone spare for a lucky few regresses to a teenager emotionally.

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    3. Anonymous, I think you're absolutely right. I wonder, then, if it's better to go to reunions and hope you can make peace with the past, or avoid them entirely and just try to forget?

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    4. That's a good question.

      I'd say go. Even if people slip back into their old roles, assholiness is a trait that only truly asserts itself in the long run. So, even the people you hated and who hated you back aren't going to be actively looking to rekindle the mutual hatred. One day isn't enough for people to get on each other's nerves that badly.
      Besides, people change, or at least grow up, and there might be some tentative bridge-building from surprising directions.
      If nothing else, it's a good excuse to get really drunk and cry your eyes out. (Both of which are cathartic experiences.)

      Of course, if the every day experience should have been banned based on the Geneva Convention, it might be better to go see a therapist instead.

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  5. love the new background pic for the blog! I am so sorry that you feel the way you do about school. I think the beauty about reunions is you can face your fears head on. You can erase the self narrative and replace it with a new one based on your experience on the night. I for one will miss you xx

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    1. Thanks so much, K.
      I do wish I could have gone to our reunion, for that very reason. I would have liked to go there as the person I am now, and to meet everyone else as the people they are now. I hope many of us can still catch up again *in real life* the next time I'm visiting Australia.

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  6. I like the journey you went on in this post. I started reading and began thinking to myself almost immediately how hard you are on yourself, then I cheered up immensely when you came to the same conclusions I did when I was reading your lovely beach story...I would watch that and be endeared about the lovely mum and kiddies at the beach, the mum who isn't native but who has made the effort to learn the language...

    As for the school comment...just to illustrate how totally opposite we are, I had my reunion last year and didn't make it, but I also joined the Facebook page and chatted with old friends and tried to communicate with others I thought were friends - turns out I (must) have offended some people or not been as friendly with them as I thought - about 3 people wouldn't respond to me and my best friend (who I have had since high school together) attended the reunion and told me of one girl who was bitching about me (she had married my then-boyfriend - seems she is upset I had him before she did - so bizarre!) 20 years later people still have grudges for things I don't even recall! It's a little funny that you assume people thought you a nerd or unlikable in some way and I thought I was a lovely person who was liked by everyone - and apparently I'm very wrong! lol!

    I was shocked and rather put out if I'm honest. We are grown ups now, surely whatever may have happened at high school should be water under the bridge? In fact one girl who physically beat me up (and is now a social worker) and I began chatting on FB and now play 'words with friends' online daily - I told her how terrified I was of her after my 'beating' and she didn't even remember it! (She beat up a lot of people back then, and left school early with a host of issues, but clearly has her life together now) Regardless, I don't hold a grudge, that would be pretty extreme and close-minded if you ask me.

    Anyway the point of my long winded response is that you assume people think the worst of you, I assume the best and in reality for both of us, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Most people are so busy with their own lives they are ambivalent at best about what other people are doing. There will be the element that applauds you, and the small element that may critique, but as a whole, everyone is just doing their best to get through like unscathed!

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    1. Karyn, thanks so much for this great comment. I'm sure you're right - that the truth about who we are and how we're perceived by people outside our immediate circle is never quite what we ourselves believe it to be, and at the end of the day probably it really doesn't (or at least shouldn't) matter all that much!

      I can really identify with that feeling you described, of believing that whatever happened at high school should be water under the bridge (and this was one reason why I was so disappointed at that report card comment!) I'm very sorry that some of your classmates felt it necessary to snub you, after all this time and for very dubious reasons! For heaven's sake. You'd think we were all back at high school... :)

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  7. Are imperfections felt more acutely by perfectionists? Probably...is that you? Probably! One line of your as usual thought provoking blog hit me. You said that you didn't particularly want to be remembered as someone who annoyed people by doing well at things, it made me wonder what you do want to be remembered for? It is actually a question that I constantly ask myself and check in to see if I am living my life true to myself or just getting caught up in the moment. Well done on being on TV in a foreign language....certainly a case of brave carpe diem.

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    1. Sara, thank you so much.

      If my blog is thought-provoking, so are your comments on it! Wow, what a great question. What do I want to be remembered for?

      It's not that I don't want to do well at things (of course I do - we all do, I think). I would prefer, though, to be remembered not for what I achieved, but how I actually lived my life. I hope I'll be remembered as someone who (by choice) took a road that wasn't necessarily the easiest or the most straightforward, but one that was important to me. I'd like to be remembered for putting my energy into the people, work, and other interests that I'm passionate about. I would like my children, in particular, to understand that although there were numerous challenges along the way and I struggled sometimes in pursuing them (since challenges do tend to go hand in hand with mistakes, setbacks and frustration), I kept my chin up and didn't let a bad day get me down for long.

      I'd like to be remembered for having lived my life not with the aim of doing well, but with the aim of living well.

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  8. When was this?
    Got a link for the interview?

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    1. Anonymous, I'm sure the footage is available somewhere on the internet, but since I write this blog under a pseudonym I'd prefer not to point my readers to the interview, which divulges my real name!

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  9. I went to an elite girls' high school. I was from an average family, we had a small daggy car and didn't wear the latest fashion. My parents were flat our just paying the enormous school fees let alone making us look the part. It wasn't easy. After a few years of flitting between groups I did find some good friends. I was a shy insecure and fickle teen and I truly regret moving on from some of the girls I initally befriended in order to find my place with the 'cooler' girls. My 20yr reunion is at the end of the year & I have mixed feelings about going. I think I will. I always liked those "Where are they now?" shows on TV. I imagine it will be like that, but with more familiar faces and better hair!

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    1. Anna, thanks so much for stopping by for a read, and for taking the time to comment. Wow, it sounds like we led parallel lives in many ways! I hope you end up going to your reunion. We are all so different now from who we were as teenagers, and I think it's really important for us to try to make our peace with the past. All the very best!

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  10. Kelloggs Ville, for some reason your comment was eaten by Blogger, though weirdly it still came through to me via email. This is what you wrote:

    "This is very well written, I totally relate and understand. But I think I have overcome a lot of this feeling with one simple solution : I lowered my attainment marker! Seriously, I now regularly achieve perfection according to my definition of it. Anybody else going further are over-attainers and trying waaaay to hard :) By my standards it seems like you are ticking boxes all over the place. Also in my world of (occassionally) achieving self accepting, I removed myself from all school reunion pages, deleted all ex-school friends off my social contacts that aren't actually my true friends now and generally avoid that world of negative memories and comparisons. I'm finding avoidance and low standards are working just fantastic for me. I also regularly say I was put on this earth to make others feel good about themselves, I see it as a service I provide :)Strive to be Happy :)"

    I'm going to go even further and suggest that the goal should be to have NO standards except that (a) we should always try our best at the things that matter and not give up (b) we should, as you say in that lovely quote from Desiderata, "Strive to be Happy". Managing to do those two things on a daily basis would be really something. Making people feel good about themselves comes under (a) in my books, and I will continue my "community service" efforts with vigour! :)

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  11. I think you are brave for even considering going to a school reunion. My memories of school are less than happy. I was a nerd too, weak and small, and never fitted in though desperately wanted to. Throwing of the yolk of peer pressure was the best thing I ever did. I have no wish to go back.

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  12. Peer pressure is an overwhelming and often horrible thing when you're a teenager. I don't miss it either. Although I think it might have helped to go to the reunion and convince myself that we have all moved on in 20 years, maybe it's better that distance and logistics have made it too difficult for me to attend. Maybe it's better that I just keep in touch with the small group of like-minded former classmates who have always been (or have since become) real friends.

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  13. OMG! You spoke Finnish on television! :) That's awesome!

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  14. Good for you for taking the plunge! I think I would have been too nervous to speak Finnish on TV..

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