As my kids gear up for back to school, I can’t help but wonder how they will look back at their childhoods, the time and place in which they were raised, their family experience, and the impact their culture has on their growing hearts and minds.
How did we get here?
I can’t pretend to be perfect. I actually tried that for a really long time. It didn’t work.
Here’s the thing about perfection… It’s a lie, an impossibility. Culturally, we were sold perfection for a long, long time. My parent’s generation, the baby boomers, really thought they had it all figured out.
Americans saved the planet from tyranny! We were the moral majority in a broken world!
And anything that contradicted the standard that was put forth by the newly minted television was not discussed in polite society (polite society being primarily white and middle class, of course).
My family wholeheartedly embraced the unreality of perfection.
There is still discomfort when any topic other than sunshine and roses is discussed with my family. It makes for a fun crowd, unless you happen to be experiencing any type of hardship. Then the world gets lonely real fast.
In my parent’s generation, suffering was expected to be endured in polite isolation, so as not to upset those around them. Anyone with the audacity to publicly fall apart was regarded as an embarrassment.
And so, when I chose to publicly “come out” as flawed and vulnerable, it was not well-received.
Keep in mind, my circumstances are not extreme. I don’t have mental illness or addiction. I don’t even wear short skirts (heaven forbid!). I’m not flamboyant in any way. I don’t like to stand out. I am Sara, plain and tall, and it took me nearly 40 years to be okay with that.
I like me. Broken, fallible, exposed, simple, brave. Imperfect.
I chose to change my family culture.
A series of fortunate events aligned at just the right time in the story of my life, and I realized in a light-bulb, aha, thunderclap moment that I did not want to raise my kids the same way I was raised.
I wanted to talk about all the things. About those we do not speak of. About feelings and disagreements and the real life nitty gritty.
It didn’t go over so well with some of my family. And admittedly, I wasn’t graceful at first. I suppose I’m still not at times. Learning how to feel after a lifetime of hiding out is a lot like learning to walk. You fall down… a lot.
Except when you’re 40, people don’t think it’s cute when you fall down; especially people who don’t want you going anywhere. They’d much rather you stay right where you are – right where they are – forever.
Because change is really uncomfortable. Sometimes, it actually hurts. Sunshine and roses are much more pleasant, and if we all just keep pretending the other stuff doesn’t exist, life can be fun! Right?
The distinction between suffering and trauma
Before we go any further, it’s important to draw a distinction between suffering and trauma. Suffering is inevitable. Suffering is something we all must endure as part of the human experience.
Trauma is in it’s own category. Trauma is entirely avoidable and unnecessary. Trauma is scarring. Things like domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, and emotional abuse are trauma, and distinctly different from the natural suffering inherent in living a life.
Trauma is not caused by perfectionism, but is most definitely enabled by it. The only way to heal trauma is to talk about it. The only way to prevent it is to admit the possibility. Perfectionists refuse to do either.
A note to perfectionists: Do not forward this to someone being honest about their trauma as a way to justify their pain in an attempt to silence them. Do not tell them that their trauma happened to make them stronger, and they should be grateful for it. That is gaslighting and toxic.
That being said…
Maybe life isn’t meant to always be fun.
Maybe suffering is actually a crucial ingredient for happiness. Maybe suffering happens so we can truly appreciate the joy. Maybe some things – the best things! – can only be learned through suffering; things like humility, and loyalty, and honor, and grace.
Ah, grace! What would life be without grace?
We can look just about anywhere for the answer to that question. It’s in the comment section of every viral post online. It’s in the ugliness of nameless, faceless internet trolls, the malice of selfish politicians, and the bitterness of talking heads in the Media.
A lack of grace is evident in the self-righteous gaze of judgement against those struggling to process trauma.
Perhaps the most detrimental fallout of an entire generation obsessed with perfection is the death of grace.
Here’s what I learned from the shattering of my “perfect” life:
- It was never perfect. It just looked that way on the outside. Ignoring the bad stuff didn’t make it go away. In fact, it made it worse!
- Pain is inevitable. Even if you try really, really hard to avoid it, pain will find you. There’s death. And illness. And societal ills. And human failing. People will let you down.
- Growth is painful. If you want to become the best version of yourself, you have to be willing to hurt a little bit.
A cultural shift is happening.
We are so busy giving Millennials flak for being entitled and whiney that we aren’t paying attention to the gifts they are giving us – smaller houses, thrift shop fashion, a return to community. Open conversation!
Millennials aren’t impressed with waste. They reuse things. They don’t yearn for bigger, better, faster. They yearn for real.
Millennials wear their hearts on their sleeves. They aren’t afraid to say things like, “I’m scared,” and “This hurts!”
And when they say it, the rest of us feel a little safer to say it, too. Because let’s face it, we’re all scared, and we’re all hurting.
Millennials aren’t impressed with shiny new things, unless they are real shiny new things. With glitter! (Then they are really, really impressed.)
Millennials want authentic everything – real food, real friends, real houses paid for with real money. They don’t want the fairy tale because the fairy tale has failed them. The bubble burst and reality fell out, and their parents hadn’t given them the necessary skills to cope with it.
Turns out, perfect actually blows.
If we don’t talk about all the painful stuff, that stuff runs amok; it grows into a giant snowball of awful.
Whether it is inside the walls of our own homes, or outside in the culture at large, when we refuse to talk about our fears and our pain the problems just multiply.
When painful things are ignored inside our homes we create an environment ripe for addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse, emotional manipulation, mental illness, resentment, apathy, contempt, and ultimately, the breakdown of the family; which of course filters outside into the streets.
Secrets kept become a plague that seeps out the cracks in our doors and windows and infects the rest of society.
Unresolved pain at home becomes racism, sexism, homophobia, hate crimes, mass shootings, homelessness, and poverty. The notion that “If we ignore it, all that will go away” is more than just outdated. It’s poisonous.
How will history shine on the era of my children’s youth?
It’s safe to say the era of the infallible adult has come and gone. It was never real anyway. Adults in generations past made just as many mistakes as they do now.
We have entered a very uncomfortable period of growth. The transition towards truth has not been smooth. It takes a strong person to be willing to grow emotionally, as it does a strong nation.
Many in my generation and older are clinging to their perfectionism with both hands, to very ill effect. It is the Millennials who are boldly facing down this challenge. It makes me wonder who truly are the whiners?
Perhaps the “grown-ups” are mistaking a willingness to talk about everything that is broken in our culture for whining.
Maybe we are mistaking the sound of reality for whining because the truth makes us uncomfortable.
Maybe it is my generation and those preceding us who need to stop whining about all the changes. Maybe the world we cling to so desperately needs to change, and we need to get out of the way of those willing to do it.
So why does it seem as though we are so much worse off?
I describe myself as an optimistic cynic. I want desperately to see the good in every situation, but I can’t help but accept the reality of the human condition. And so, I choose to see the current state of our culture as a positive thing.
It isn’t that we are any more broken and flawed than we ever were. It’s just that people are just now, 200,000 years after the first humans walked across the forested hills of southwest Ethiopia, starting to hold each other accountable on a mass scale.
The pushback of this massive accounting is unpleasant, as strongholds and power structures dig in their heels. But ultimately, if we keep speaking our truth, their walls will eventually come down.
We say that we deserve better, that ballots full of the lesser of two evils give us no options. But I would argue that we are getting exactly what we deserve. We created the culture in which we live.
My generation worships celebrities and wealth, we live beyond our means, we sacrifice our own integrity in order to attain attention and social and financial success, and then we wonder why our elected officials do the same.
We choose not to vote and don’t teach our kids to vote. We consider voting optional if we have the time (and who has any free time anymore?), leaving the polls to extremists, and then we wonder why nobody but extremists are in office.
We have taken democracy for granted. We have abused our privilege, and now our privilege abuses us.
We act as though democracy is something we watch on TV and not something in which our active participation is required in order to function properly.
Our systems are only as good as the amount of work we are willing to put into them. And thus, we have dealt our children a legacy of shame and leaders who appeal to the least common denominator.
We deserve everything we’ve got. It is our children who deserve better.
And it is our children who will fix it.
As my kids head off to school this week, I am proud of the people they are becoming. And I am proud that I chose to Redefine Love, to get real about pain and suffering and be willing to talk about all the things.
I am hopeful for their future, for the future of our nation and the world. The kids have got this. They will break the bonds of perfectionism. They will resurrect grace. And I am here for it.
Published August 19, 2019