Just when you think you have it all figured out, life plays a trick on you.
I’m learning this the hard way.
I have always been a woman very set in her ways and her thinking. There were never 50 shades of gray when it came to anything in my life. It was black or white. Right or wrong. Good or bad. Responsible or irresponsible.
I grew up in a time when everyone was held accountable. There was no prize for the last place team. If you won you got the trophy and the bragging rights, if you lost you went home pissed vowing to work harder next time. If there was a problem in the classroom it was our fault not the teacher’s. We ran the streets, drank from the hose, and walked everywhere without a care in the world. If you wanted to talk to someone you walked to their house and spoke to them face to face. Manners were something you learned from your parents because they were your first and most impressionable teachers. You ate everything on your plate because children were starving in India and God help you if you got caught lying, cheating, stealing or talked back. In my house it was the belt. I learned early on to respect that strip of black leather. Had I spoke to my parents the way I hear kids today speak to their parents, I’d have metal screws holding my jaw together.
In my world there was the right way and there was never any consideration given to the wrong way. It wasn’t an option. The same went for the adults I grew up around. They were what they were supposed to be. Responsible, respectable and all-knowing. There were no drug addicts, alcoholics or gamblers among my friends’ parents. If there were, they did a remarkable job hiding it. Growing up, I never experienced divorce, molestation and with the exception of the death of a dear friend of mine in middle school, I never experienced severe emotional trauma. Neither did my friends—for the most part. And what trauma there was, I never experienced first hand because I wasn’t privy to it, I just heard about it. So it’s no wonder I grew up very rigid in my view of the world and the people who populated it.
I was a good girl, living the Norman Rockwell life in the suburbs. And as idyllic as that childhood was, it didn’t prepare me for life outside of what I knew. Oh, I have never lost my manners, work ethic or sense of family and responsibility, that’s ingrained in me. It’s as much a part of me as my brown eyes.
But life has a funny way of showing you things you thought only exited in novels or in the movies. I recently watched Valley of the Dolls. I remember reading that book in high school. I was shocked and titillated and could not read it fast enough. It was a beautiful train wreck of lives that began with hope and good intentions and collapsed into utter destruction.
When I read it all those years ago, I was convinced people like that didn’t exist. Oh, how naïve I was! Because now, I know people like that! They live in my neighborhood, they are the parents of my children’s friends, and horror of horrors, I’m related to some of them! But what I know now that I never would have imagined back then is: they are not bad people. Most of them are good people who have experienced things I never did. Many of them have chosen a different path than I have, even though our paths occasionally cross. My life has been enriched by these people.
I have discovered there are many colors that lie between black and white, some of them gray but many, vibrant wonderful colors.
I have learned, and it was a hard lesson learned, not to be judgmental. But the biggest lesson I have learned, the one that ripped the narrowed vision glasses I insisted on wearing off, was that most of what happened around me was none of my damn business. And because it wasn’t my business, I was able to learn to not make judgments or alienate people I would have otherwise judged and therefore alienated.
It was a relief for me to realize I wasn’t perfect and therefore I gave myself permission to just be me, and me was flawed. Seriously flawed.
To err is human. We are emotional beings, and thus we are ruled by our emotions. The things we did and felt as a teenager don’t go away when we hit 30, 40, 50 or 60. We can and do still experience all of those crazy feelings that made us do impetuous irrational things.
I’ve watched someone very close to me run the gamut of emotional highs and lows since their 25+ year marriage fell apart last year. I swear sometimes I feel like I’m back in high school with my best friend going through all the trials and tribulations of one disastrous love affair after another. The things this person is doing, has done and will continue to do, run the emotional gamut.
It’s crazy, exhilarating and downright terrifying to see this person reduced to an emotional pile of mush on a regular basis. But I realized if I were in their shoes, I would be the same way! If I found myself in that situation, while I would be older and wiser, I am still an emotional being.
It was a hard realization about myself to accept. I’m still trying to understand it.
It’s what I love about writing. I can channel all of those crazy emotions and live vicariously through my characters. In many ways it’s a form of therapy for me. I can fall crazy stupid in love over and over and still maintain my sanity, my home and my family. It’s a good thing too, otherwise, I might be that crazy lady everyone talks about.
I still don’t have all of the answers. In fact, I think I have less now than I did five or even ten years ago. Life keeps evolving around me, I’m in a constant state of movement. Forward most of the time, but lately chasing my tail, and every once in a while I take a step backward. But to err is human, and I am human to my core. So, what can I expect from myself? Not a free pass to behave badly but some leeway to allow myself to be human. To not be so hard on myself and those around me. While I haven’t lowered the bar of expectation on myself or others I associate with, I have allowed us all to err. And not to judge any of us because we exercise the right to be human. With this understanding of myself and human nature, I’ve noticed my characters have become more complex, multi-faceted, and vulnerable. Like me.
It all goes back to writing what I know. And as I gain depth, so too do my stories and the people in them.
I find it hard to write a truly despicable villain because they are human too. They behave the way they do for a reason, that reason usually born of extreme emotional trauma. They just channel it negatively. To err is human is it not?
This brings me to the big question: What character flaw have you overcome? If you’re perfect then share with us a character flaw in others that bugs you. 🙂