Last week, I had what Anne of my Cordelian namesake would call “an epoch in my life”: I got the buttons for my Invisaligns taken off. I am now finished with my alignments, after 3 years of wearing trays I had to sneak into bathrooms to remove if I decided I wanted a snack or a cup of coffee while out with other people (then be self-conscious over how freaky I looked without them, because those jagged little buttons make your teeth look like those of a fairytale hag who eats children).
It wasn’t the fact that I was finally done with the hassles that made this moment so significant. It was the fact that if Past Me had been in that dental chair checking out her smooth new pearly whites in a hand mirror, she would have cried like a moron. A blubbering, on-the-floor with gratitude moron, like a tween who just learned that Zayn leaving One Direction was only an April Fool’s joke.
And now, at 33 years of age, I can finally say that my biggest source of self-consciousness is a non-issue. That’s a pretty big thing to be able to say. Yet how I reacted to this momentous occasion was both surprising and disappointing.
What This Moment Should Have Meant to Me
Of all the things I’ve ever wished I could change about myself (and there are plenty), my teeth were always personal enemy number one. They made the list before my tiny chest and my tiny stature and the fact that my hair seems to have been created solely to serve as my lifelong nemesis. Because those were all things that, while not in love with them, I could live with.
But my teeth? My teeth were the visual manifestation of my own secret fears that I didn’t live up to everyone else and never would.
We didn’t have the money for lots of things when I was growing up, and braces were one of those things. In elementary and middle school, when my lunch tablemates were commiserating over what a pain it was to eat with braces and how their rubber bands kept snapping, I kept my mouth totally shut — so I wouldn’t get pulled into the conversation, and so no one could see that my teeth desperately needed braces too but weren’t getting them.
I perfected the closed-mouth smile in yearbook photos, no matter how much the photographer tried to coax me to “flash my pretty smile.” (It won’t be pretty if I do it, I telepathically warned him with dagger eyes, so drop it, old man, or I will cut you.) I learned to laugh with my hand over my mouth or to duck my head so no one saw the sorry situation going on in there.
Whenever I looked in the mirror, all I saw was the embarrassing mess I kept trying to hide from the rest of the world. As I got older and conquered acne, ditched my glasses for contacts and came to a tentative peace with my hair, my janky teeth were always there, reminding me every time I smiled that I was an ugly, behind-the-curve weirdo who’d never really be attractive. I could dress to the nines and make myself up to look however I wanted: cute, polished, badass, the mature professional or the glowing bride.
Until I opened my mouth. Then all I saw was jankiness.
So, with all of this emotional baggage behind it, the moment I saw my brand-new, normal-person smile in the mirror should have been one of the highlights of my life to date. I should have felt beautiful, triumphant, and so incredibly thankful I’d be content to live with every other personal imperfection I’ve ever complained about and never say a word against them again.
What I Felt Instead
In reality, my first thought was a mild, Huh. That looks pretty good. My second thought was, Why don’t I feel more excited about this?
The dentist and dental assistant seemed more animated over the final result than I was. I’d been watching the change occur, slowly but surely, over the course of 3 years, and by now the transformation was nothing too terribly novel to me. Honestly, the thing I was the most excited about was not having to deal with those damn trays anymore.
And that felt sad. Because I’d gotten something I’d wanted after yearning desperately for it for years, and now that I finally had it, I was already taking it for granted. There wasn’t even a honeymoon period where the shine gradually wore off; by the time I’d arrived at my destination, I was already over it.
In our TL;DR culture, I guess I shouldn’t have found this surprising. But that doesn’t mean I can’t mourn for it a little, just as I mourn for all the other ways we live with “I’ll be happy when ___” mindsets but never feel truly happy when that “when” materializes.
We’re a Sad Lot, When It Comes to Being Happy for Ourselves
We humans have an astonishingly short shelf-life for joy. (Tweet!) We acclimate to good things very quickly, and we before we know it, the awesome has become the usual and we’re back to having our minds and hearts taken up with all the stupid minutiae of our days.
This isn’t my first lifelong dream realized with little or no fanfare.
Past Me, who spent all day Sundays in soul-killing dread of the work week ahead of her, would have wept, copiously, out of mad crazy joy for the fact that I now wake up every morning and get paid to write, working on my own terms and on my own time. Past Me did cry over this vision — many times, in fact, in the 2 ½ years I side-hustled my tail off to get to this point. She believed the day I went off on my own, Disney bluebirds would flock to my home office windowsill and we’d sing a song together about how beautiful life is when you’re free. I would wake up every morning grinning. I’d be brimming with the sort of zest for life you see only in Abilify and Cialis commercials.
Instead, I got one year in to my long-dreamt-of freedom and realized it was only making me miserable in a different sort of way. This was because I was wrapped up in deadlines and billable hours and ROIs and barely lifting my head from the screen long enough to know what season it was, let alone whether the sun was shining. I’d lost sight of the big picture, and the little details were crushing me because of it.
Past Me, lonely and alone in a sad little basement apartment wasting time on dating sites that specialized in non-starters, would think my typical nights now spent watching TV while cuddling on the couch with my awesome husband were Happily Ever After. She’d revel in them. She’d thank her lucky stars for them. The promise of them would help her get through many a bad date that started with very low expectations and ended with even lower spirits.
Instead, I sometimes feels restless and resentful because of my husband’s illness and wish I were living more adventurously. Every time I shovelled the Buffalo snow this winter, I reminded myself that I could have been living in a flat in London in an alternate life, instead of being thankful for the person shoveling right beside me even though he wasn’t feeling well. There’s no guarantee London would make me any happier in a snowstorm than an Orange Is the New Black marathon accompanied by cuddles, but that’s where my mind would go to, because we tend to stop seeing what we have and focus only on what we still want, especially when our immediate present is filled with things that annoy or inconvenience us.
I love the way Danielle LaPorte challenged her readers to be more grateful in a recent post: “What do you want,” she asked, “that you already have?”
It’s so easy to get caught up in the everyday that we lose sight of how lucky we really are to live the lives we’re currently living. So, I’d like to offer up a little challenge of my own…
My Challenge to You
It’s a simple one, but hopefully you’ll find the results pretty powerful.
If dare you to look back at Past Yous of 5, 10, even 15 years ago, and ask yourself what sorts of things about your life now that person would find drop-dead amazing.
If Past You was transported to this day in your life — this very day, even if it finds you feeling tired or frustrated or fixating on whatever lack is currently top-of-mind — what would Past You think you’re lucky as hell to have? What would make their eyes light up? What would they want to run back to the past and brag about to everyone?
You may not realize it in the muck and the mire of the day-to-day, but in more ways than you know, you’ve already “made it.” Sometimes you just have to step back a bit to bring it into focus.
What about your life now would Past You be on-the-floor grateful for? Let’s get a celebration party going in the comments!
Image: ▲ARTwear.ch▼/ Flickr
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