As we welcome a new year, people are resolving to lose weight, to live healthier lifestyles, to improve upon the person they were last year and the year before that. As time moves on, we become discouraged by our setbacks: the chocolate cake we ate in the dark in front of the TV, all the times we didn’t make it to the gym, the way we lost our temper with our children or our spouse. Months go by and we forget about the person we wanted to become and settle down with the person we were, the person we are. There is discontent. There is unhappiness. But this is who we are, we reason. Change is too hard.
I just finished reading my first novel of the new year. Towards the end of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Jack and Murray are walking together, discussing Jack’s growing nebulous mass, his fear of death:
“I hate to be the one who says it, Jack, but there’s something that has to be said.”
“Better you than me.”
I nodded gravely. “Why does this have to be said?”
“Because friends have to be brutally honest with each other. I’d feel terrible if I didn’t tell you what I was thinking, especially at a time like this.”
Our friends and our family feel an obligation to be brutally honest with us.
Riding in the back seat of a car, my youngest child complained that she only had my shoulder to rest her head on, not a soft place, like my belly. As I stood in the kitchen in leggings, my oldest child declared that my butt was jiggly like Jell-O. All the people in our lives—our mothers, our fathers, our sisters or brothers, our colleagues, our lovers, our friends, even our children—they have said things to us, words lodged in our psyche. Yet the loudest voice of all is the one we speak to ourselves with, and too often that is the most discouraging voice of all.
We carry a lot of stuff with us. It takes six compliments to undo one insult. Sometimes, it isn’t even an insult that haunts us, simply something that was said that-for whatever reason- we clung to as part of our identity.
I once teased my friend for her “dirty” hairbrush. I don’t remember doing it, but as someone who routinely cleans the hair from my brushes, I don’t doubt that I did. My friend confided in me not too long ago that she bought a new hairbrush so she wasn’t nervous for me to come into her bathroom when I stopped by.
I had no idea what she was talking about till she reminded me of what I had said. All this time, she carried that with her.
This same friend told me once that my car smelled like diapers. I had a diaper-wearing child at the time. Did it smell like dirty diapers? Did it smell like clean diapers? There was a crucial distinction that needed to be made. Eight years have passed and I haven’t forgotten.
We carry a lot of stuff with us.
My husband and I don’t fight often, but sometimes we will be discussing something one or both of us feels passionately about, and our discussion will swell into an argument. The thing is, we are never really arguing about the topic at hand—we argue because we can’t let go of our stuff.
When I want to talk about something I am upset about he tries to comfort me, not by offering me the emotional support I am seeking, but by turning into Mr. Fix-it. When he offers an opinion that suggests my feelings are not valid, I assume he must not understand them. I know they are authentic, therefore he must not have heard what I was trying to communicate. Maybe if I rephrase it, maybe if I repeat myself over and over again, he will. Listening to this broken record annoys him. He thinks I am treating him like a child, or an idiot. I get it! You don’t have to tell me a hundred times! We both are stubborn people. When he becomes defensive, I shut down.
I loathe this cycle, but the way we behave in these moments is grounded in the stuff we brought to our marriage. Stuff from our childhood. Stuff from our past. Real or imagined, this is our stuff.
Without our stuff, we might never argue, but the stuff we carry is heavy, and pinned below its weight, we’ve yet found the tools to unburden ourselves.
We carry a lot of stuff with us.
Some people struggle with nicotine. Some people struggle with self-image. Some people struggle with anxiety or depression. I struggle with guilt.
I pretty much feel guilty about everything. When I spend too much time working, I feel guilty that I am neglecting my family. Spend an entire weekend without grading any papers, and I am awash in guilt again. I feel guilt over where we live: it’s so far away from our family- and even though my husband and I both chose to move here and both love it, every time my mother-in-law cries at the airport after visiting us, I bear the guilt.
The guilt sets in every time I tell someone No, but I also feel guilty when I agree to something that I don’t want to do. Why couldn’t I put my needs first?
This paradox-my stuff-is debilitating.
As a goal-driven person, I normally pooh-pooh New Year’s resolutions. I don’t need a new calendar to propel me towards action. When I say I’m going to do something, I do it. I love the feeling of accomplishment. I write lists to cross things off them.
This year though, I want a resolution. I need one. Just as I set my intention when I practice yoga or meditate, my intention this year is to start getting rid of some of my stuff. I’m tired of hoarding it. There is discontent. There is unhappiness. Like Elsa, I want to let it go.
2017 will be my 39th year, and I’d like to go into the next decade of my life with less stuff.
We all deserve to be happy. We all deserve to be the better version of our ourselves that we imagine, that we know is inside of us. There are too many things out of our control to give up control over ourselves.
So Friends, I am going to be brutally honest with you. Change is hard, especially when that change is rooted in our stuff. It’s going to take time. Have patience.
Let 2017 be the year you unburden yourself. And if you experience set-backs along the way, offer yourself some forgiveness. Don’t let it interfere with your full realization of self.
Whatever your stuff is, I hope you find the resolve to surmount it.
Here’s to a Happier New Us!