Jan. 4th, 2017

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"Take this paper, and write down all the regrets you have from the past year. Then we'll burn them and start with a clean slate."

My friend hands me a torn scrap of foolscap, and I pull my purple pen from my purse, considering. The other party guests banter with each other, covering up the inherent vulnerability of the moment by proposing outrageous stories or asking whether such-and-such mundane thing counts as a regret.

I write a few lines, mostly small things; slowly, they begin to imply a theme of something larger that I can't yet articulate. I write a few more, circling around the issue: I regret not taking some of the opportunities my mother offered to grow closer. I regret not reaching out to my friends when I needed emotional support. I regret letting my certainty that I already knew the answers cloud my ability to learn new things.

Finally, I've outlined the shape enough to identify what it is my brain's been hiding from me: carefully, in clear letters, I print "I regret all the times my pride has kept me from connecting with the world."

Then I circle it and underline it twice, as if to emphasize its importance to the oncoming flames.

--

"Even from the time Ambrosia was little, she knew her self-worth."

I am twelve years old, and my mother has told this story many times. Still, my back straightens a little.

"When she was a toddler, I would take her to the playpark in our neighborhood, and she would want to stay longer. So I would tell her, 'Okay, I'm going home without you,' and pretend to leave. And she would keep on swinging, or playing on the jungle gym, until I turned right back around and scooped her up."

At this age, in the nadir of middle school, I am just now beginning to be aware that my greater-than-average self-confidence has been a handicap to my social acceptance. Eight years of teasing, of ostracism both subtle and blatant, of outright violence on a few memorable occasions, are finally starting to penetrate. I am slowly realizing that, contrary to the "just be yourself!" messages of a thousand thousand afterschool specials and middle-grade novels, my defiance of social dictates - my refusal to wear 'normal' clothes, to care about my presentation, to keep my opinions to myself in class - are exacting a very real toll on my ability to get on with my classmates.

Until this point, I've taken pride in not caring about the shallow and superficial things most people in my age group care about, in marching to the beat of my own drum. But the constant shaming wears on me, as it is meant to do; we are social creatures, exquisitely attuned to the slights of others. It will be some years yet before I start to appreciate the value of building my personality through careful negotiation with social norms, of bearing superficial markers indicating belonging to a particular class or cohort. And it will be many more years of careful observation and learning - often by saying precisely the wrong thing - until I learn the subtle arts of getting along in a community, of deferring to others' knowledge even when I'm convinced of my own correctness, of influencing group opinion in small ways, of quietly building social currency against the day when my integrity will demand that I take a stand.

--

This morning, cocooned in blankets and absent any driving motivation to get out of bed early, I sank into the sort of brightly-lit, highly-detailed dream that often seems to visit me at such hours. I was visiting a mall storefront that turned out to be a beautifully decorated Jewish temple, run by a particularly Orthodox sect. For some reason I had a pressing need to wash my hands, and I remember asking a stern-browed woman if I might do so; she looked displeased at the notion, but apparently my need was great enough to overcome her reservations.

I proceeded to the back of the space, where there were several sinks, and started washing my hands at one of them, only to realize from the horrified faces of those around me that not only was I using entirely the wrong sink, but that I was trespassing upon the men's side of the temple, as well as likely violating several other rules I didn't even know. I take such pride in knowing the social tenets in any given situation, in acting carefully to ensure the comfort and approbation of others; the realization that I was in a situation where I was socially illiterate sends a wave of shame, pure and unadulterated as few non-dream emotions are, swamping my chest and my cheeks. Strong as it is, it burns indelibly into my memory the dream that might otherwise have faded in the light of day.


--

"Are you feeling inspired?" I ask my client, once she's taken a few breaths of her aromatherapy oils. We had been laughing at the silliness of naming a scent blend "Inspiration", as if achieving so notoriously elusive a state could be as simple as taking a few breaths.

"Oh, absolutely!" she answers, tongue planted firmly in cheek. "Now I can go home and finish all those half-done songs I have filling my notebooks!"

We spend a few moments bonding over the difficulties of musicianship, and the specific frustration of unfinished artistic efforts. She admits that she finishes perhaps one in ten songs that she starts; I, having not even been brave enough to start ten, feel simultaneously relieved and humbled.

I've long known that my difficulties in finishing anything artistic stem from my perfectionism; so long as a song or a story lives only as an idea in my mind, it will always be perfect, spared the trauma of birth and the inevitable marring of being shaped by imperfect hands. But, with pride much on my mind of late, I begin to consider how much of that perfectionism stems from pride. Completion means sharing, and sharing means risk - of judgment, of failure, of losing my sense of specialness. If I could let go of that need to feel special, set apart, would that help me to take artistic risks? Would it be easier to share something imperfect and true if I didn't tie my self-worth to my pride?

That last thought startles me with the truth it implies, and I almost miss a stroke in the massage.

--

"You can spend your life trying to fit yourself into a box. But you'll always be too much for some people. For others, you'll never be enough. But the great joy is that, if you let yourself, you'll always be exactly enough for you."

Something in the yoga teacher's voice catches me, which seems odd - I've been ruminating of late on how the doctrine of self-exceptionalism has been harmful in my life, and on the surface her message reads very much as a variation on the "just be yourself!" mantra.

You'll always be exactly enough for you.

It occurs to me, as my brain slowly slots the puzzle pieces together, that perhaps the problem isn't pride, per se - it's what I'm proud of. All my life I've been told that I'm talented, intelligent, exceptional; all my life I've been secretly terrified that I'm going to seriously screw up and prove everybody wrong, prove that I really am that weird girl who deserved to be bullied and ostracized, disappoint everyone who had such faith in me. I've accomplished a few things, it's true, and I'm proud of them, but I think I've been even more proud of how they reaffirmed my belief in my own exceptionalism.

And yet...in order for me to be exceptional, it logically follows that others have to be unexceptional. And I've long since rejected the idea of talent as a zero-sum game; I strongly dislike the idea that because one person doesn't measure up to another on one arbitrary scale, that means they don't have something to contribute on another axis. I wonder how much of the fear and misery I can forestall by refusing comparison, by practicing humility with regards to others, by working on being enough for me.

I wonder if, freed of its shackles of fear and embracing its gift of imperfect life, my art might someday take wing, finally able to share itself with the world, to help forge those tenuous connections we so desperately need.

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