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 wrote a comment, “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 got a fricking ‘B’ for mathematics! So there.)

At school, it was assumed that academic success made me smug and arrogant, and people who barely knew me cut me down in anticipation. 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 truly end in success – learning obscure languages like Japanese and 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.

I might hate myself for imperfection, but it turns out that the world in general likes me better for it.

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.