I’m just being exactly who I am right now and seeing how that goes.
After spending nearly half of my time on planet Earth in some kind of earnest form of self-development, I’m giving it up.
That’s right, for the past several years, I’ve suspended my yearning after a new, improved, shinier version of myself. No more workshops, self-help books, therapists, coaches, rigorous exercise regimes, or radical diets. I’m just being exactly who I am right now and seeing how that goes.
Those persistent shortcomings that have been my trusty companions for lo, these many years keep showing up as they always have. Now instead of rolling up my sleeves, getting out my spiritual wrenches, and making a lengthy self-improvement to-do list, I nod and sigh and carry on.
I’m willing to bet that on the day I die I will still tend to impatience, judgment, a craving for salty-crunchy things, and a fundamentalist kind of loathing for any kind of fundamentalism. I’ll have flabby arms and so-so posture and a propensity to waste time on the computer.
This new phase of my life began in a cab in Chicago several years ago. I overheard a conversation between friends as we were driving through the drizzly streets:
Friend One: “I’m on a new raw-food diet now. I’m working with a pilates coach several times a week and enrolling in a new workshop series and working with a new business coach.”
Friend Two: “Sweetheart, you’re such a lovely person. What if you stopped working so damn hard on yourself and just lived your life?”
What if, indeed?
That proposition struck me so deeply that I went home and wrote a song about it (you can see a video of the song, below). The line that still makes me squirm a little is “what if all this striving to be my best was just self-hatred in a fancy dress?”
I’m growing suspicious about the habit of self-improvement. It feels like a subtler, more “enlightened” version of consumerism… a kind of spiritual cosmetics industry. As long as I’m obsessed with a bigger (or smaller), better Barbara out there, I might not notice poverty and injustice. As long as I’m dithering about some intractable personality trait, I might not notice Nature’s incredible unfolding outside my window or my neighbor’s need for a friendly gesture or what a stunning miracle it is to be alive at all.
Just to be clear, I’m not averse to learning. As a singer/songwriter, I will continue to reach for the clear note, the true turn of phrase, the effortless piano riff. As a voice coach, I’ll keep listening deeply to beauty and wisdom within the voices of my clients. As a friend and family member, I’ll continue to bring my heart and attention to the precious humans around me. These things feel distinctly different from those other kinds of self-improvement projects I’ve given up. They seem to emerge from inside me rather than being imposed from some external expectation or standard.
Meanwhile, I don’t need to seek out challenges. Life will keep on bringing me nose to nose with my shortcomings. And when it does, I’ll whine and squirm and – as poet Theodore Roethke so beautifully writes – “learn by going where I have to go.”
By Barbara McAfee