I recently received an email from a friend in appreciation of a post on my homeschooling blog, Quarks and Quirks. I’d written about how our family has handled studying war. She commented on how things in my life seem to work out somehow noted her own feelings of parental inadequacy. (That’s certainly not my intent when writing about my experiences with the underbelly of life. Quite the opposite.) Ironically, the day I received that message I was struggling with a serious case of that same malady that day — the feeling like I’m getting it all wrong.
Okay, not all wrong. When I objectively step back and look at my life, I don’t see some overarching failure or anything close. But when I sit too close, I’m apt to see only what seems awry. It’s like staring at your face for too long with those magnifying mirrors: rather than seeing the whole face, all that stands out are the crevasse-like wrinkles, Mt Vesuvius zits, and errant wiry hairs. Eek! A short survey of that amplified visage can be informative. (Time to wear sunscreen daily and cut down on the potato chips. Oh, and put better tweezers on the shopping list.) Too much time studying the parts, and one begins to consider large-brimmed hats and oversized sunglasses as indoor winter attire.
I tend to tempt the mirror fates with long examinations of the minutiae of my life and relationships with others. My mind’s eye strays to predictable places: my boys and our homeschooling, my productivity outside of homeschooling, and the messiest places of my house and yard. Regular, short looks into life are healthy, desirable even. It’s in these moments I see what is working and what is not. In those glances, I see the dust bunnies under the bed and the diversionary tactics that keep me from writing bigger projects. Those looks help me reorder priorities if needed and remind me what is important and what isn’t. (You will live another day, bunnies.)
The longer looks take my breath away and can reduce me to panic and tears. Attention to detail is good. Obsession about detail is not. With a bit of attention, I can see the pattern of my frustration with my teen, notice my parenting mistakes, and reflect on what part of our struggles is his responsibility and what is mine. With too long of a look, the relationship between us seems fatally flawed, with rents and rifts made by me forever damning him and us. I can shift from constructive self-criticism to scathing self-loathing in a few blinks. He’ll despise me when he’s older. He’ll run from this home and never return. I’ve ruined it all, and there is no redeeming this relationship.
Yeah, I’m good.
Fortunately, I’ve peered often enough into the magnifying mirror to know that those panicky moments, hours, or days are more calisthenics of an overactive imagination, some inherited tendency to assume guilt, and a flair for the dramatic than reality. Not that the initial inklings of concern aren’t important messages that can inform me that my ways of being in the world aren’t working as well as I’d like, but perseverating on them isn’t useful for him or for me. It doesn’t even help the dust bunnies, who tend to get rather matted and muddy when exposed to tears.
Despite these mountain-into-molehill looks at my life and self, I’m generally optimistic. Like my friend noted in her email, things tend to work out for me. I think this is true for most people, although tallying success by the day is likely not the way to find this. Scorekeeping life a bad idea, and it’s far too easy of an activity for an introverted, internal, continuous improvement sort of person to do. The path from a single bad moment to a hideous month is short and leads to nowhere productive
So as self-flagellating as I can be, I’m not a believer in bad days. Bad moments, challenging mornings, trying afternoons, exhausting evenings, sometimes all in the same 24 hours, but not bad days. My viewpoint may be partially a product of semantics and partially protective, positive attitude. I’d hate to mark the day as “bad” at any point along the way, since each moment is a separate moment, and all those moments can’t really all be bad. After all, if we’re still all here at the end of the day, how bad could it have been? The label of a day negates the good, the amazing, the profound, and the vast majority that just is.
The brief look in the mirror shows what is. That’s the look that’s long enough to honestly assess the situation, assign responsibility, and ascertain a course of corrective action. Too little time of self-reflection results in too little data to foster growth. Too much time results in a serious magnitude of one’s actual affect on the world around them. It may be a miserable, jet-lagged, luggage-losing fiasco, but assuming one is the blame for all the world’s wrongs (or even all one’s teenage son’s misery) is an ego trip. Ouch.
And that’s part of why I write. I write to sort out what I see in the mirror. I write to give myself some distance from the magnified view I tend to see on sleepless nights or after difficult conversations. I write to see that generally the moments that make up life are fine. Perhaps they don’t all work out in the neat way I’d prefer. Perhaps more angst, drama, and failure than I’d like occur along the way. I write to sort the chaos, failures, missed opportunities, success, hopes, and joys and find that even at the hardest days, the latter three win out.