What is wrong with this picture? Nothing.
Today I find myself wondering why we are so quick to find fault in ourselves and others. Even for someone like me always looking for the redeeming quality in a situation or personality, it is far too easy instead to recognize and react to everything annoying, disappointing or hurtful. When did complaining become such a strong part of the human condition? When did everyone become guilty before proven innocent?
And maybe because of that culture of blame, there is an equal and opposite trend towards forgiveness, letting ourselves off the hook for every possible past or present weakness, flaw, damage or misdeed. But there wouldn’t have to be so much forgiving if there weren’t so much blaming to begin with. And none of that blaming would matter if we weren’t so hungry for acceptance and approval in the first place.
You hear a lot about “unconditional love” being the highest form of this most sought after of human connections. We love our dogs, cats and other domestic companion animals because they love us unconditionally, flaws and all. We don’t have to prove anything to them because their approval is constant and guaranteed. They don’t stop loving us because we are unpopular, underpaid, overweight, or overwrought. When we can’t meet our obligations due to illness, or sadness, apathy or stupidity, they don’t lose faith in or respect for us. We can be weak with them, tell our secrets to them, know we won’t be judged, and that we will be the same person to them whether we are at our worst or at our best.
It seems that even the best of human relationships can’t measure up to this standard of acceptance. We may find ourselves in a partnership of great mutual tolerance, compassion, and understanding, and still not avoid those chilling moments when it is apparent that someone has let someone down, moments when it seems more sympathy and support are to be found among strangers than loved ones, because loved ones can’t conceal their vast disappointment, and strangers aren’t invested enough to have quite as much to conceal, or at least have the decency to hold off until you’re out of the room.
Feeling bad about myself has occupied far more of my lifetime than feeling good. Much of that blame came from within, but a lot of it also came from outside, from the voiced or perceived disapproval of others whose approval was important to me. It doesn’t really matter that a well-intended desire for the best for me, and belief in the best in me, were often the source of frustration and grief when I failed to achieve that ideal. At some point an ideal was established as desirable, and from then on, failure to achieve it was easy to recognize and feel bad about, whether anyone actually pointed it out or not.
With such a strong fault-finding mechanism in place, forgiveness has been a difficult counterpart to establish. Not focusing on the bad in persons, places and things takes effort. Not focusing on my own failings takes more. For both, it means stepping back and looking away from the present moment and considering things in a larger context of past and future successes, which is not easy to do when the present moment is so much more compelling, immediate and substantial than the ghosts of what happened long ago or the visions of what hasn’t happened yet and has no guarantee of ever happening.
The good news is, I don’t often feel bad about myself anymore. It takes a lot of overwhelming evidence to convince me I am guilty of being less than I ought to be. I’m far from ideal, but I’m doing pretty good all things considered. Mitigating circumstances carry far more weight in the course of my deliberations. And yet, my better judgment is still swayed by a lingering unnecessary need to prove myself. For instance, I am at home writing this post in bed today because I needed a day off from a new job I only just started a week ago. I began the job while battling a bad headcold, and having pushed myself to complete my first workweek, that headcold is now winning the battle. In retrospect, I should have set aside my unwillingness to disappoint, accepted that I was unequal to the task, and delayed my start date. But I apparently needed to prove something - to myself, to my loved ones, to my new co-workers? – and now I am paying the price.
Fortunately, my self-forgiveness mechanism is strong enough that, without hesitation or guilt, today I chose taking care of my health over making a good impression. Sadly, that decision was immediately followed by an urge to defend it, provoking the thought process that inspired this post, which I am only able to write because I stuck by my decision. Looking on the bright side, not only will my health benefit from a day at home, but I’ve also been able to clear my mind, and possibly write something that might help other sufferers of unnecessary faultfinding. The fault-finder in me is still too quick to point out everything wrong about me and my choices and their consequences, making me that much more vulnerable to the judgments of everyone in my life. But while I can’t ignore those disapproving voices, neither am I letting them dictate my actions. And that is a kind of progress.