I took a tumble at work before the holidays. My foot slipped out of my heel and my shoulder bag was overflowing and I was trying to untangle my headphone chords and the only thing that came between my face and the tile floor was my kneecap. Post-fall, I assessed the damage. My ankle was sore, my knee was throbbing, and my ego was bruised (who likes falling on their face at 6:50 in the morning right in front of their boss?), but my coffee didn’t spill. I righted myself and thanked whatever god (and coffee tumbler manufacturer) ensured that my fall had only resulted in a bruise and not in a coffee stained hallway minutes before a flood of children would pass through the doors.
I often feel unbalanced. Some days I am ‘on track’ and some days I question where I am going, how I am treating people, what kind of person I am turning into, and what good I am doing. But then, so is everyone. Around me I see equal numbers of people moving ‘forward’ in life with plans (see: jobs and houses and marriages and adventures and grad school) and people ‘figuring it out’ (see: kittens and break ups and chips for dinner and air mattresses). Most have a mix of the two. Some are happy and some aren’t. Some are ok with being unhappy and some are struggling. Some are sprinting and some are stumbling. Some find solidarity in the stumbling, while others secretly feel alone. Sometimes the ones who appear to be moving forward the fastest are actually the loneliest.
But sometimes it seems like being lost is almost cooler than being found (not to mention the process of getting lost in order to find yourself, especially if you do it dramatically by selling your possessions and globetrotting). It is glamorous in the way that being lost is glamorous when other people do it, but not when you try. We don’t say that though. On the outside we are smiling and on the inside we are stumbling.
I count my blessings. I don’t lament the fact that I can’t ‘have nice things’ when my life is and has always been manufactured with nice things (the nicest of all being a college education). My 5th graders and I read a book called Wonder in class. It is about a little boy with a severe facial deformity attending school for the first time and experiencing the immense cruelty and compassion of children. We started to talk about what we would do if we were in the main character’s position. How would we feel? Why would we get up every day? I don’t know where we went or how we got there, but somehow I found myself quoting Victor Frankl at some 10 year olds. You know, the last of all human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances. They stared at me. “It means – we get to choose what our life is like every single day. We can wake up and choose to make it a bad day or we can choose to be hopeful.” Oh, they said. We do that sometimes, but it’s hard. I didn’t tell them that it doesn’t really get easier.
Does it matter that I don’t know what to do with myself next year? Or this weekend? I cultivate an image of myself as one who loves adventure, but I spend so much time in bed. I am a reader who goes months without picking up a new book. A writer who chooses television over typing. A friend who chooses text message over calling. A ‘good person’ who too often does not lend a hand when it can easily be given. I know comparing ourselves to others is the root of all unhappiness, but how we can stop the comparison between our real self that is struggling to grow and the self we make ourselves out to be? But then I read The Moral Bucket List and I smiled.
This is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. Recognizing her limitations, the stumbler at least has a serious foe to overcome and transcend. The stumbler has an outstretched arm, ready to receive and offer assistance. Her friends are there for deep conversation, comfort and advice. External ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve. But the stumblers occasionally experience moments of joy. There’s joy in freely chosen obedience to organizations, ideas and people. There’s joy in mutual stumbling. There’s an aesthetic joy we feel when we see morally good action, when we run across someone who is quiet and humble and good, when we see that however old we are, there’s lots to do ahead.
The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be. Unexpectedly, there are transcendent moments of deep tranquility. For most of their lives their inner and outer ambitions are strong and in balance. But eventually, at moments of rare joy, career ambitions pause, the ego rests, the stumbler looks out at a picnic or dinner or a valley and is overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless gratitude, and an acceptance of the fact that life has treated her much better than she deserves.
Those are the people we want to be.
My bruise has healed, but I am still off balance. I suppose the point is that we never stop stumbling. We stumble, we pick ourselves up, and we will be just fine. Happy New Year, stumblers. Let’s all go down this road together in 2016.