Here's what I wanted to be when I was nine: good.
Yeah, good. Good in preference to happy, good in preference to smart, good as opposed to an incipient lawyer or dentist or dancer or fairy princess or whatnot. Good especially in preference to becoming President of the United States, which I had divined was the proper ambition for little girls, but which interested me about as much watching paint dry.
While doing long division. In my sleep. I mean, the president was a wizened, wooden-looking white guy. Who wanted to be that?
Looking back, I blame Little Women. I first read Little Women at the vulnerable age of six and proceed it to slam it down monthly for three years thereafter. If I could have injected it intravenously, I would.
Everyone in Little Women wanted to be good. Good was where it was at, even if, in the process of sublimating parts of yourself into sublimity, you croaked, like Beth. Meg figured out how to be good. Amy came around. Even Jo, who began the book so gloriously far from goodness, straightened herself out, and at the end of the novel she received her reward in the form of a wizened, wooden-looking white guy.
Problem was, I was not good at being good.
I tried, I really did. But every time I turned around, there I was: self-interested, stubborn, and fond of getting my own way. I was kicked out of two preschools and gave my parents fits. By elementary school I had acquired a veneer of civilization, but underneath I was the same. I beat myself up about my lack of goodness for years, and then I accidentally read Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was like methadone. Kierkegaard told me I only had to hold myself accountable for my second impulse -not my first. I was free. I was -damn it!- good.
I laughed! I sang! I frolicked! And then I settled down to flagellate myself for various other shortcomings, including my overbite, my anxiety, and the degree to which I self-flagellate.
Which is why, every so often, I read Oprah Magazine. Oprah Magazine has nothing on 12-step programs: it is cheerier, more hopeful, and has better layout. Oprah magazine keeps me on the straight and narrow. It tells me what to read and what to think and steers me forcibly back toward a nuanced understanding of morality.
Martha Beck is the life coach/personality guru. She is odious and I hate her. This month she ordered me to swap conjunctions. Instead of saying "yes, but," I am to say, "yes, and."
I don't get enough done, I tell myself.
Yes, and I booked that concert, I tell myself back.
I don't try hard enough at work, I tell myself.
Yes, and I worked late on Wednesday, I tell myself back.
I eat too much cheese, I tell myself.
Substituting "Yes, and" for "yes, but" allows for constructive self-criticism but stops you short of self-abuse. It embraces complication, subtlety, and the very real possibility that things are not all one way. I loathe that Martha, bless her annoying, self-righteous little self, is right.
Yes, and thanks.