Yesterday I got a letter in the mail from a pen pal in Portland. It was written by a girl I thought I was going to hate -- she was dating one of my best friends from high school, and I'm really picky about the people my friends date. I want them all to be dating humanitarian celebrities, since whomever they marry is going to end up one of my new best friends, too. It's all very selfish. Anyway, the girl turned out to be incredible -- like, if you read her character in a comic book you'd say, "Man, I love everything Dan Clowes does, but frankly, this girl is too good to be believed."
She has sent me a few letters now, and they have all been magical; they're unlike any other letters I've ever received. She makes her own envelopes and does drawings on the backs of the paper. But more importantly, the content of her letters is transformative. It's the kind of stuff you're always hoping to find in books to underline in pen.
Yesterday's letter contained four rules to live by. (I can't remember what she called them in the letter -- confirmations or affirmations or invitations or something like that. She got them out of a book, which I feel I need to note here. But I don't know or care what book it is. As far as I'm concerned, she made them up herself.) I needed them yesterday because I am sad. I am really annoyed that I am sad. There is absolutely no reason for me to be sad. My life is super-good. And still, and yet, and despite all that: sad.
Sadness, sadly, requires guidance. Yesterday, like in a movie, the guidance came to me in a handmade envelope from a girl I've only met in person once.
The rules are:
- Never assume what anyone else is feeling.
I am assuming a lot about people right now. In the interest of privacy, I should probably not write much more than that. But the sheer amount of emotional energy I give to assuming what people are feeling could fuel an emotional rocket ship to Venus.
- Be impeccable with your word.
Selfishly, the thing I fear most in my life as an adult is being considered dishonest. When I was younger, I lied all the time about basically everything. Really. It bordered on pathological. Once I lied that I had a brother who lived in another state and liked to set things on fire. I clearly needed to find improv.
As a grown up, I want to make everyone happy. A lot of people are like this -- it's not unique or emblematic or anything -- but it can be a pretty dangerous characteristic. I want to make everyone happy, and I never want to say anything that could be a disappointment. ("Actually, I'm too busy to hang out;" "I wish I could do that job for you, but I can't;" "You know, okra isn't my favorite thing to eat;" "Your baby is super weird-looking;" etc.) That means that I'm a truth stretcher: a person who finds prettier ways to say borderline-ugly things. That's something that I should probably work on. But... your sweater looks so great today!
Honestly, I have been working on honesty so hard for the past five years, that being accused of being dishonest is particularly painful. I'll keep trying. That's all a person can really do.
- Be the best you can be.
The letter said, "Just do the best you can do, and don't beat yourself up if it's not as good as you think it should be."
- Don't take things personally.
The letter said, "Everyone is living their own story, and it is all about them, and not about you." It is all about them, and not about me. It can be good to remember, that when you believe that a room full of people is obsessing over the intimidating comment you made during professional development, that they are in fact obsessing over the passive-aggressive comment they made instead. We are all the stars of our own stories, which is evolutionarily advantageous, but difficult for our human relationships at the same time.
I didn't become a decent teacher until I learned not to take things so personally. A curriculum director used those exact words when she observed me teach a disaster of a class that began with Play Doh and ended with me on the floor of my classroom in front of 30 children sobbing. No one knows how hard it is to be you. They are never going to.
So be gentle with yourself.