At work these last couple of weeks we have been experiencing the self-flagellation ritual of the annual review; that appallingly traumatic half-an-hour when your flaws and inadequacies are dragged out into the light so that your immediate superior can give them a bit of a poke with a sharp stick. And then, while you’re still smarting from that poking of your wasps’-nest of flaws, you collude to set some pointless targets to stick in a cupboard for another twelve months until the whole merry-go-round swings past again.
The 21st century norm is that we are all supposed to strive to get better and better, every day in every way. We are supposed to set ourselves targets and measure our progress against them This is supposed to give us all a sense of achievement and moving forward improving, always improving.
Ha. Haha. Ha ha ha.
Does it? Are you? I think it’s this kind of thinking that leads to an awful lot of grumpiness and general discontent. We’ve all been led to believe that things will get better, that we will have happier, richer, more fulfilled lives than our parents’ generation. And it’s just not true. The truth is, we all have to get used to the idea that our lives are probably going to stay the same at best, but in all likelihood get a fair old bit worse.
And in our personal lives I think the striving for continuous improvement leads to great big chunks of unhappiness and misery. Many of us have been sold the idea of finding total contentment in our marriages. Our partners must ‘make us happy’, must provide all the emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual fulfilment we need – and if we find ourselves looking to other relationships and friendships for any of this, or if our partner falls short, then there is something wrong in the marriage, we’re told. We should move on, find something better. Someone perfect.
But if the weaknesses of others make us angry and frustrated, then that’s as nothing compared to how our own weaknesses can make us feel.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that there are always about ten times as many people around to point out your faults than to acknowledge your good points. The modern tendency for self-reflection makes this all ten times worse. Surely if we can identify our own flaws, flag them up in one of those quizzes (‘Are you a control freak, or another sort of loony?’) or if we can select the right self help book from Amazon – well, then surely we can just stop behaving in such ridiculous ways? If we can recognise our mistakes, we can stop making them, for once and for all?
Except we know that’s not how human beings work. Once we know our own flaws, it doesn’t really help. In fact it can make it worse. Because recognition isn’t the same as finding a solution. Mostly our faults run so deep that we could no sooner change them than we could change our own heads. Mostly we behave the ways we do because we are programmed, emotionally, in a particular way, and there is no greater hiding to nothing that trying to subject our emotions to logical analysis.
My own flaws are pretty well known to me. If you know me, or even if you’ve been reading this blog, then I bet they’re pretty well known to you too. I am, it’s true, conspicuously untidy. A bit loud, a bit over-enthusiastic and over-emotional and pathologically unable to take anything seriously. I appreciate these things are a bit annoying. Well, more than a bit. It has been mentioned. But, really, what can I do?
Now this piece isn’t intended as an apology for really inexcusably bad behaviour. I am not suggesting that if your particular fault is, say, a tendency to set fire to things, that you should just accept that and move on. And perhaps start saving up for a fancy new sprinkler system. If your faults, whatever they are, spill out and hurt others – well, we all have a responsibility to limit that as much as we can, and apologise unreservedly when we screw up.
But rather than spend our lives in pointless pursuit of meaningless perfection, well, there is another way. We could try and accept that we are all ‘works in progress’. We could try and enjoy the little quirks and differences as much as we can. Find them entertaining and endearing if possible.
And if you can’t quite bring yourself to ‘like’ my flaws, or your own, with a little thumbs up (or two) then at least you could put them in a proper perspective. My house is a terrible tip, I know, but I am a rather genial and welcoming host. It balances out, I think.
We don’t have to be perfect, none of us. And maybe if we all started to just be a bit kinder to each other then we could even be a bit kinder to ourselves. Because here’s the thing: if I like you, I probably like your flaws as part of the package. Like the fact that – just to pluck an example from the air – that you’re so vain that you will check out your reflection in anything, even a spoon, despite the fact the concave surface is really far too distorted to be helpful. No, you don’t have to be embarrassed because, if I like you already, then that story is kind of adorable. Really.
And I’ve put a little pocket mirror on your Christmas list.
As a general rule, once I know what your faults are, that means you have opened up to me and I have seen beneath the surface and I almost certainly like you more than I did before, back when you kept your annoying habits under wraps and pretended to be perfect. Once I know you’re riddled with flaws then I can show you mine. And we can start relating to each other as human beings rather than as facades, or projections.
And wouldn’t that be kind of, well, perfect?