One of my coworkers at my old day job was the actual embodiment of Superwoman.
She was gorgeous, in great shape, the nicest person you will ever meet in your entire life, super-smart and capable, an extremely hard worker—and she also had approximately 27 kids. (The actual number was closer to 5 or 6, but since I can’t remember which it was, 27 seems like a good approximation of what it must feel like in real-time.)
It wasn’t unheard of for her to arrive at the office at 6 a.m., work till 6 p.m. (constantly fielding calls from the daily emergencies that arise from having approximately 27 kids), then leave her car in the lot so she could run back to her home (oh, about 5 miles away) because she was also training for a marathon.
You heard me. I may have exaggerated the number of kids, but all the rest is actually accurate.
I would fall apart—emotionally, physically, mentally, and aesthetically—if I had one kid and was expected to do…well…anything, let alone all of what this coworker tackled. But there she was, day after day, impossibly together and so sweet and lovely you couldn’t even have the satisfaction of hating her for it. All you could feel was awe, mixed with total and utter perplexity. How did she do it? How was she so upbeat? Was she secretly a bionic woman who’d finished her stint doing special ops for the government and was now enjoying a “normal” life trying to blend in with us non-bionics?
To this day, I’d believe she was a figment of my imagination if other former coworkers weren’t around to confirm that yes, she did and still does exist.
For the Rest of Us Mere Mortals…
There may be a handful of her superhuman sort in existence. The ones who speak 5 languages, are proficient classical musicians, and also happen to save entire African villages on the weekend, just as a hobby. The ones who were blessed with the ability to survive on 2 hours of sleep a night, to stay awake without caffeine, to look gorgeous without makeup, and to stay fit without exercising. Oh, and James Franco. I hear he does a crazy amount of stuff.
But for the rest of us, just getting out of bed in the morning and managing to make it to the end of the day can feel like a feat of superhuman strength. And our culture is so caught up in the “you can have it all” mentality that we rarely stop to think if we even want it all to begin with.
Sure, it would be nice (o.k., freakin’ awesome) to be able to be the perfect son, daughter, spouse, s.o., mom, dad, employee, neighbor, citizen, and friend, every day all the time without batting an eye.
It would be nice if commercials and magazines were true, and the right combination of miracle products and movie star love would mean we always cooked perfectly balanced meals, kept our houses sparkling clean, found the perfect jeans for our body type, and knew what every doodad in the craft store was for (and how to use them to make at least a dozen delightful decorations and personalized gifts).
But most of us will never be those people. And if we are—if through sheer bloody hell determination and a willingness to go without sleep—we did manage to pull it all off, I don’t think we’d be very happy with our lives.
The people in those commercials and magazines are a fraud. If we really did do everything they did, underneath that Photoshopped veneer of a smile, we’d be absolutely strung out and miserable. One in one hundred thousand of us, like my old coworker, would actually thrive. But the rest of us? Frazzled messes.
Because living a truly “successful” life—a happy life, the kind you’re glad to have—isn’t about being able to Do All The Things. It’s about being able to Do The Things That Matter. And that, by necessity, means letting lots of other things slide—and realizing that’s o.k.
The “If, Then” Equation
If we really want to gauge how successful our lives our, it’s time to sit down and honestly ask ourselves what “success” really means. What elements do our lives absolutely have to have for us to be wildly, madly in love with them?
More time with loved ones? More time for your passion work? Perfectly pressed linens and countertops that sparkle?
Whatever that answer is, we’re left with a choice. In order to make time for the things that matter, we have to give up this glossy, idealized notion that being on top of everything all the time equals happiness. (Or is even possible.)
Our time on this earth is an “if, then” equation, wherein deciding that A and B are super-important to you necessitates your accepting the fact that C, D, and E are probably not gonna happen—and that’s perfectly fine.
If: You want to spend more time with your loved ones…
Then: You’re gonna have to learn that love does not equal cleaning the baseboards and only ever cooking those “20 minute meals!” that Better Homes and Gardens actually believes take 20 minutes to make. It means being available. It means being present. It means letting the rest slide because it makes no difference in the grand scheme of things.
If: You want more time for your passion work…
Then: You’re gonna have to learn to say no to the things that would easily eat up your time instead. Whatever time sucks your life doesn’t depend on, you need to consider expendable. Embrace the eternal ponytail instead of doing your hair from scratch every morning. Risk disappointing a friend by not being available for every emotional crisis that hits them. Stop worrying over what you’re “supposed” to do and be, and focus instead on who you are and what drives you.
If: You want a spit-shiny house Martha Stewart would envy…
Then: You’re gonna have to realize that takes time. A lot of time. Time you could be spending with loved ones, on passion work, or doing a million and one other things that you on your deathbed will be glad you’ve done. If, accepting that, you still really want the Martha Stewart house, then more power to you. Embrace your OCD. If it matters to you, then it’s worth it. But if it doesn’t? If you get it and you still feel empty? It’s time to reconsider.
It All Comes Down to Priorities
Figure out what matters to you, pursue that with everything that’s in you, and stop giving a single damn over what anyone else (your own inner “shoulds” included) thinks you ought to be doing.
You are one human, with one life, and it’s on you to use that in a way that makes you glad you lived.
Not to wonder why other people seem to be able to do more than you.
Not to feel less-than for not living up to whatever standard of “having it all” everyone else is chasing.
Not to care about being a renaissance man or woman when all you really want to do is that one thing that will not leave your heart and soul alone.
Be bionic at kicking life’s tail, not at checking all the boxes.
Can you handle that?
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This year, Thanksgiving was particularly dread-inducing for me.
Yes, there was the usual “How can I pretend to be nice while ignoring Sleazy Uncle Matt’s sexist comments or Angry Uncle Steve’s rightwing religious rants?” (Did I call out Uncle Steve on Easter, causing him to effectively ignore the fact that I exist? Maybe. (Is it one of my proudest moments ever? Maybe.))
But the greater part of the dread came from the fact that this would be the first major holiday that’s gone down since I quit the day job, and I was not looking forward to delivering the same defenses ad nauseam as every person present asked a) what I was doing now, b) what exactly that is (“It’s like running a magazine on the computer, Grandma…Yes, people do read it…”), c) how I can actually survive doing that, and d) when I’ll give up and realize it’s time to get a “real job” again.
(At least it would distract them from the “Any kids on the horizon?” question.)
But, the day before Thanksgiving, something happened that changed my entire perspective.
The Best Little Thing in the World (To Me)
I did not like commuting. By which I mean I loathed it with the fire of a thousand suns.
I did not like driving the 33 every morning, half-awake and hating the job I was rushing like mad to get to, fighting off potential annihilation at any moment by the crazyheaded other drivers who were also rushing like mad to get to jobs they hated.
But commuting during the winter? Aww, HELL no!
Now, I could appreciate that we live in Buffalo, which means we laugh at the dusting of snow that shuts down whole cities in other parts of the country. I could appreciate (though I despised) the fact that blizzard-like conditions only induced my bosses to drag out the line “Unless there’s a driving ban, you still have to come into work.” We’re Buffonians. We’re tough. We eat blizzards for breakfast. I get this.
What I could not appreciate were the above-mentioned other drivers, who only took multiple spinouts along the side of the road and near-zero visibility as a personal challenge to show how fast they could manage to push the gas while still maintaining control of their vehicle. Every time I took to the 33 during snow, it was a white-knuckled agony of a drive, maniacs on my tail the whole way, until I arrived at my 15-minutes-away destination 45 minutes later, emotionally exhausted and ready to take a long ball-of-danger-curled nap the rest of the morning.
So you can imagine the utter Christmas-morning thrill I felt on Wednesday when I awoke to see Winter Storm Boreas had left a thick blanket of snow over the world…and I didn’t have to drive in it. My neighbors were firing up snow blowers at 7:00 in the frigid morning, and I was in my PJs and fluffy robe, watching two contented puppies curl up on the doggie bed in my office as I serenely sipped my coffee.
I felt like I’d been given a new lease on life. Everything — and I mean everything (fluctuating income, long hours, disbelief at the validity of my career from loved ones) — seemed completely and totally worth it in light of the fact that I would never again have to drive the 33 during rush hour snow.
Is this a bit melodramatic? Maybe. But to me, it is one of the loveliest things in the world. And I realized, in that moment, that anything anyone at Thanksgiving might have to say about my new state of employment, it didn’t make a whit of difference. Because all I’d have to say was, “I didn’t have to drive the 33 this week,” and I’d immediately feel a sense of relief and joy so profound even Angry Uncle Steve — if he deigned to acknowledge my presence again — couldn’t bring me down.
I didn’t have to drive the 33 in snow. I would never again have to drive the 33 in snow.
It didn’t matter whether anyone else got it or not; I got it.
Frankly, My Dear…
See, the thing is, nobody can tell you whether what’s “worth it” to you is a “valid” enough reason to do what you’re doing.
Because nobody is you. Nobody has your values, your priorities, or your life to steer. So whatever anyone else thinks of the choices you’ve made or the tradeoffs you’ve accepted, it means absolutely nothing. You don’t have to justify your life to anyone. Only to yourself.
I don’t happen to have have the “kid” gene in me. But that doesn’t mean I spent Thanksgiving demanding to know why my in-laws ever thought having children would make them happy. That doesn’t mean my first question upon seeing Cousin Kurt was, “Seriously, dude? When are you gonna get rid of these kids? Haven’t you had enough by now?”
Because I am not him. And I know that his kids are his reason for living. I don’t get it for the life of me, but it’s his groove, and god bless him for dancing to it.
Of course it helps when your friends and loved ones understand why something is so important to you. But at the end of the day, the only thing that really, truly matters is whether it is important to you.
If you can wake up in the morning, think that little worth-it-you thought, and have your whole world seem right again, then keep on doing, brother. More people than you will ever know would kill to have something that important to them. Follow it with every ounce of everything you’ve got in you, and forget about what anyone else thinks.
If it matters to you, it’s worth it. End of story.
Image: Shanon Wise
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When I was a kid, I had a family member who doted on me. He worried about everything that had to do with me. Like if my teacher raised her voice at me. Or if I hadn’t eaten enough protein, or if I needed to buy red shoes so nobody laughed me because everyone else had red shoes. It was fun for a while, until I grew up. Then it became annoying, and I couldn’t wait to get away from him.
I learned to hide quarrels with friends or fights at school because he would give suggestions about how to have the upper hand in a fight or how to write better poetry. He would list a dozen reasons why someone wasn’t good enough to be my friend and argue with teachers that complained about me.
I just wanted him to let me be so I could find my own way. Sometimes he got the message and at other times he didn’t, but he never managed to stay out of it for long. It drove a wedge between us and soured what could have been a wonderful relationship.
The Apple Never Falls Far from the Tree
Fast forward a few years, and I was telling my friends what to do and how to do it. Suggesting they break up with this boyfriend, learn how to play the guitar because they were promising, or take some other course because it made more sense. I’m sure I’ve written breakup speeches for a few friends in the past.
I lost friends who felt I was trying to run their lives; I would console myself that I didn’t need them, but it still stung. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was acting just like that family member. I was in denial for a while, but finally, I was determined to stop it.
Acknowledging That I’ve Got to Quit
Turns out stopping was a lot harder than I thought.
Telling myself that I needed to quit wasn’t helping. I am older now, and my friends are in more serious circumstances than BFFs or cheating boyfriends. It’s marriages on the brink now and abusive husbands or interfering in-laws and mean bosses. But I can’t keep lying in bed worrying about other people’s problems and how to save them.
Maybe they don’t need saving, and if they do, then maybe they need to realize it first — or better still, they can save themselves.
Slowly Getting Better
It’s been hard. Really hard, but I’m mastering the art of not been a savior. I’m learning to just sit and really listen to people complaining or sharing. This way, I can actually hear the things that aren’t been said. Like when the person doesn’t really want my help, even if they’re asking for it, or when their fear comes from a deeper place and it’s something they need to work out themselves.
I understand that family member better now, and I feel quite guilty about the way I handled our relationship. I’m focusing on other things like myself, family, world peace, and taking life one day at a time.
Biodun Adebiyi just finished a novel and is moving on to the next. She writes and shares at Membrane Books and Paper Boys. Currently, she lives with her family in Suwon, South Korea. You can follow her on Twitter @biodun_adebiyi.
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