(I want to preface this by pointing out that what while I may sometimes sound preachy, what I write here is always directed primarily at myself. Learning how to be a decent human being is a lifelong journey, and this blog is in part a space for me to build an archive of some of my lessons.)
My sister Yay recently posted this gem on social media:
Quit pretending that everything in this life happens to you, and that you have no responsibility or influence in your own life. If it’s wrong, make it right. If it’s bad, make it good. But stop sulking. Start expending good energy. Your circumstances are not your purpose and certainly not your destination.
Disclaimer: this rant is not directed at anyone specifically, but if the shoe fits, feel free to slip it on and lace that bitch up!
It gave me a chuckle and we had a good conversation about it, but it was not until a few days later that I realized how resonant it was, especially during this time of pruning and growth and transition. I have shared this sentiment for a long time and my sister and I have had many conversations about the concept. We both have had plenty of friends and partners over the years for whom the shoe would fit comfortably.
Neither of us ever had the luxury of too much self-victimization because we each had to make our own way from a pretty young age. Wallowing too hard can put you in some pretty hot water (see: drug abuse, homelessness, and the like). Yet as an adult in my thirties, I still know plenty of people who refuse to be accountable for what goes on in their lives. And usually the people who whine and complain the loudest, whose unhappiness is most readily apparent, are the same people who could trace a bright line right back to their own poor choices. These are the people who blame their unhappiness and unhealthiness on anything and anyone else to avoid turning the spotlight onto themselves. Self-examination is scary. Going through your whole life with an external locus of control that enables you to pin your misery on anyone and anything but yourself is way scarier.
This is not to say that I have not made bad choices. I have, I do, and I likely always will. It is an unfortunate side effect of my humanity. And I have made some doozies, let me tell you. As recently as six months ago I took a scorch-the-earth approach to my life and crashed headfirst into a brick wall of REALITY that forced some pretty serious introspection. Part of that stemmed from feeling sorry for myself, and there were certainly small and big ways in which I was a major participant in my own unhappiness at the time. The crisp clarity of retrospect allows me to see that.
There were definitely other people who were complicit in some of the choices I made, but that does not exonerate me from responsibility for my own life or for my decisions and their consequences. When the dust from my antics settled, I sat and ate cold humble pie on a late December night when the rebound who had continuously contacted me for six solid weeks after I repeatedly asked him to stop made the decision to post my private emails online. Sure, he was a grown adult acting like a scorned teenager. But *I* made the (woefully misguided and unfortunate) choice to bear my feelings to him and to get mixed up with him in any capacity in the first place.
My first reaction to those shenanigans was to feel victimized, because this was something that was happening to me. But the funny thing about things that happen to us is that they only have as much power as we give them. That’s what’s crazy about accountability: when you take control, recognize your fallibility, and come to terms with your own wretchedness, you suddenly find that you are able to truly give yourself and others grace.
When I set my massively heavy ego aside and I was no longer hunched over in self-pity, I could see what I truly needed to focus on. My life at that time was pretty darn good and I was snuffing out my own joy by obsessing about what would ultimately amount to a tiny blip in the overall timeline of my life unless I chose to allow it to be something much bigger.
I had to face down how my own choices had been instrumental in bringing me to this place. Again, other people’s choices were at play, too, but that’s irrelevant. Being accountable is not about creating a mental spreadsheet of who did what to whom. When you focus on the choices of other people, you are robbing yourself of a chance to take responsibility for yourself and to grow and learn from it. It is not easy to occupy the head space of your own accountability. We all have alarmingly egotistical inner children whose immediate reaction to everything is to tearfully or angrily scream, “S/HE STARTED IT!”
My own inner child is a sniveling, self-absorbed shithead. Yours probably is, too. At times, I have to battle her and my monstrous ego on an hourly basis because these less evolved facets of my consciousness are not at all interested in selflessness and accountability. That business is hard work.
I chose to let that stuff be a blip on my radar instead of something that disrupted my life. My ego still roars unhappily from time to time because there exists in the world a narrative of me as a terrible person, a liar, a monster of sorts. We don’t want people—no matter how inconsequential they may be in our lives—to think badly of us. It’s the nature of who we are. But even that is part of the accountability process. We have to let go of our obsessive worrying about who has less than rosy opinions about us and who may be judging us about what. Holding onto those things detracts from focusing on more important pieces of our lives.
You have to make the choices that you can live with, but that is territory that must be carefully navigated. Living with your choices means growing, being healthy, and continually moving forward. Granted, we will be in stasis at times because that’s just the way life is. But if your choices produce compounded unhappiness, they may not be the best ones.
The great thing is that with most things, we get a chance to fix them or change our path. The less-than-ideal decisions we make cannot be undone, but you can subsequently make a different decision, and work hard to mitigate the ramifications of the original choice. But the only way to get on that path is to take a critical look at yourself and be accountable. That means being open to the possibility that you made a bad choice, even if it was an enormous one and even if the process of untangling your life from the consequences of it means hitting some form of rock bottom.
So you picked the wrong apartment. Stay there for a year and make sure that you thoroughly research the next place.
You took the wrong job. Maybe you make great money and you thought this was your dream, but you are finding with a growing sense of dread that no amount of money makes the grueling hours and the mind numbing mundanity worth it. You are bled dry with nothing leftover to give to anything besides making sure the bare necessities of your life are taken care of. If you worked in a less demanding position, maybe you could volunteer and actually become part of your community. So make a plan. Consider whether a pay cut is possible or if you can find a similarly salaried position in a less stressful environment. If less pay is inevitable, you may have to make some concessions in other arenas of your life, like downsizing your home or giving up eating out until things stabilize. There is a fine but distinct line between “want” and “need”. I’d argue that you need to be fulfilled by your job, but you want a large house/new car/certain lifestyle or whatever else is tied to your salary.
You married the wrong person. Divorce is hard, no doubt. Marriage is a commitment. But if you made a choice to commit to a person whose dysfunction chokes you, whose choices are unspeakably selfish, and who is not willing to budge and do the work to make it better—then your spouse broke the commitment first. For better or for worse does not mean “under every circumstance, even when the dynamic is consistently one-sided”. Frankly, I do not believe that God wants that kind of union. When you are so busy pouring yourself down the open drain of a willfully dysfunctional person or constantly focusing your energy on the two of you working toward fixing whatever is perpetually wrong, you are unable to be out in the world doing the kind of work you were put here to do.
You moved somewhere that you hate. Maybe your dream was always to live in the city because it seems interesting and hip and you wanted to prove that you can do it on your own. But you find that it is overcrowded and really expensive and public transportation gives you anxiety. People ask you how you’re doing and you lie and talk about how fascinating everything is here! Being preoccupied with appearances can seriously steal your joy and detract from what you can offer the world. If you lived in a smaller town where you had more money to do the things you enjoy, you’d probably find that you are a lot happier and can forge positive relationships that then perpetuate a cycle of Good.
And then there are the myriad little choices for which we have to be accountable and that we have to eventually let go. You ordered the salmon when you should’ve gotten the steak. You didn’t get your work done and now you have to stay late on a Friday. You blew a bunch of money on something frivolous and now you’re facing a big, necessary expense.
Face it. Own it. And stop stewing in it. It is not your purpose or your destiny to spin your wheels and waste your life on regrets, mistakes, or bad choices.
All of this is also not to say that I never sulk. I certainly have. Sometimes, I still do. Sometimes I feel slighted by life. There are a multitude of things that have happened to me that were not a direct result of my own choices. Abuse and neglect in my formative years, confusing and painful health problems, and the deaths of some really important people in my life are some examples of these.
And this is not to gloss over privilege. Some of us have way more advantages than others in this life. I am talking only about the things you can control within your own circumstances. These examples are reflections of my position as a heterosexual, white female with a decent job who can afford safe housing and a vehicle of my own with some money leftover.
Perhaps the most important thing in all this is that you are never trapped. You may feel stuck, and in order to get unstuck you may have to endure some discomfort. You will almost definitely have to be vulnerable and acknowledge your own role in getting to where you are. But failure does not mean that you are a failure. When you step up and take control of your life and recognize that these choices and these circumstances do not define who you are, you start to notice a significant shift in the way you view the world and the way you live your life. Fear (of failure, of not keeping up appearances, of not being the best, of any number of perceived failings) is no longer a major component of your existence. And that is actually pretty freeing.