I grew up one of those earnest, scrunch-browed kids who always wanted to be “good”. I’ve volunteered for one group or another since I was in my teens. I’d like to believe it was for purely altruistic reasons, but I’m human and psychologically speaking, I was often doing good to be seen as good. Carrying the never-good-enough gene means that one hopes actions can redeem what feels unlovable at the core. Now organizations being what they are, they don’t give a rat’s ass about what broken down esteem made you show up, they’re just glad you did. They need you – a body to fill booths or rosters or boards. If they need me, maybe I’m worth something.
Cut to 40 years later. I’ve continued to volunteer off-an-on with bouts of resentment and the sneaking suspicion that I’ve got it all wrong. In most organizations, women continue to do the bulk of labor and volunteering. In most organizations, the women are white, middle-class, and educated. My demographic – which means that I will automatically feel uncomfortable – a gift of introversion and growing up in dysfunction that makes you wait for the other shoe to drop. So I reach in and pull at the thread. Racism and classicism. Why is an organization filled with all white middle-class women? Finding both a cause and a reason to feel like an outsider – it’s the perfect frisson for the not-good-enough person, because the catch is, when it comes to being white and confronting racism, you will never be enough. Here’s a hanky for those white lady tears. And unless you plan on giving up a penchant for running shoes and grocery delivery, middle class is firmly where your not-so-firm ass will remain.
I have begun to realize how wrong I’ve been about a lot of things. Being good and doing good does not necessarily equate to feeling good for me. Is it supposed to? I’m not really sure, but I look around at my friends and family and acquaintances and I’m confused. Why aren’t they tortured by thoughts of how to be a good ally or trying hard to balance volunteerism with just living their life? What does being good even mean? Most people genuinely believe they are good people. I try to be and sometimes delude myself into thinking that I am, but mostly what I am is someone who is constantly trying to be good and often misplacing those energies.
I laugh at the efforts people put into trying to make others feel shame or fear or disgust or self-loathing on social media. Already there, jackwagons. Self-sufficient monster generator right here. I turned 55 last month and I have skills, baby. Any situation, any interaction, I can turn it into a reflection about what an awful person I am, never one to miss out on a narcissistic, depressive bout of self-flagellation. I go into shutdown mode and I try to figure out how I can quit EVERYTHING. My mind works the rationalizations. Well, I really need to focus on writing. The organization will be fine without me. Some other body will come along. I’m too old to be in situations that make me this miserable. My monsters come with ready-made excuses.
One hopes that a perpetual lack of self-confidence and self-denigration comes across as humble or endearing, but I suspect it is exhausting for others to parry with. You’re fine, Michelle. You’re a good person. That was a great thing you did. It takes an immense amount of self-control to not scream at them: I’m a monster! OPEN YOUR EYES!
Therapy, you say? Oh no, my friends, because you have no idea what else resides inside. Nothing wastes therapy more than…the people-pleaser monster. Just be confessional enough to make them think they’re getting somewhere with you. Shed a few tears. Have a brilliant insight or two into your own psyche. They settle back into their chair and think: god, I’m really great at this. This makes that 100K in school debt all worth it. You think: Maybe I am a good person, I even made the therapist happy.
One of my favorite writers, Anna Quindlen, wrote a column for the New York Times for many years called “Public and Private”. She wrote columns that connected the personal with social commentary. One critic derisively referred to her as a “monster of empathy”. Sometimes I think that’s one of my monsters, too. Empathy is the ability to imagine someone else’s life or perspective. That’s a necessary tool for a fiction writer, but in reality, it conflates your own perspectives with what you imagine to be someone else’s and 50% of the time you are off by a wide mile. It interferes with really hearing what someone else is saying about their lived experience.
Last night I listened to the wind in the maple tree outside as I tried to settle my mind. It is amazing to me what a giant mess one can fit into a single, small, unimportant human brain. A gnat on the windshield. Perspective is good, but the thought is never far away – how easy it must be to be bad, to not care, to not get hooked into a moralistic world view of right and wrong, good and evil, to do what only feels good or comfortable. But I’d be deluding myself if I thought I could live that way. I’d be worried that I wasn’t bad enough.