Let’s all be bet­ter, with­out try­ing so hard to be per­fect

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Eva Wise­man

There is some­thing an­cient within us, a burial ground be­hind our gut per­haps, which in­sists the cy­cle of new year must bring in­ter­nal change. Why else would we reach for res­o­lu­tions as soon as we’ve retched the last of De­cem­ber into the loo, re­pop­u­lat­ing our gut with prom­ises we know we won’t keep?

It is the be­gin­ning of the year, so we must ad­mit the drinks we drink are wrong, the food we eat will kill us, the clothes we wear ex­pose our lack of un­der­stand­ing about cul­tural sig­ni­fiers of class, and that we are some­times sad. We must change. But what if, what if we… don’t? What if change is bad? No, bear with me. What if, most of us, we’re OK as we are? What if we ac­cept that we will never have the up­per arms of a pro­fes­sional swim­mer, nor a mar­riage of the kind seen in the back­ground of rom­coms? What if we ac­knowl­edge that per­pet­ual hap­pi­ness would not be a ra­tio­nal re­ac­tion to the world or in­deed to life as a hu­man, and that the con­stant pur­suit of such a thing of­ten ob­scures our view of ex­ist­ing con­tent­ment? What if this year we de­cide that we’re, sort of, ba­si­cally good enough?

Of course, there is merit to a con­sid­ered re­assess­ment of what is lack­ing in our lives, and here, look, is a uni­ver­sal date on which such a thing might start. But this striv­ing for bet­ter­ness, this drag­ging our­selves through a muddy park on the frosti­est day of the year, this idea that if we’re not hurt­ing, we’re not liv­ing, well, I re­sent this. I re­sent it all.

I re­sent the myth that we can find peace if we down­load the cor­rect apps. I re­sent the lie that we can be­come more lov­able through Pi­lates. I re­sent the prom­ise that we will have more fun if we buy less com­fort­able shoes. I re­sent the idea that a rea­son­able goal is to recre­ate one’s 21-year-old body in that of a woman who is now 46. I re­sent the mes­sage that my life is a prob­lem that must be fixed.

And this is a mes­sage that gets harder and harder to avoid. To­day, self­help is hid­den in ev­ery pur­chase, like veg­eta­bles cut up very small in a child’s lunch. Whereas once there was half an aisle in the lo­cal book­shop of­fer­ing hard­backs with scream­ing ti­tles about love and suc­cess, now, in the midst of an ap­par­ent cri­sis of hu­man­ity, Jan­uary sells in­fi­nite ef­forts in self­im­prove­ment. On top of los­ing weight and giv­ing up al­co­hol, tra­di­tions now as in­grained as Christ­mas trees or elevenses, this year we must also per­form them (among other things) with quiet knowl­edge about the fat­ten­ing re­al­ity of di­ets and the truth about binge so­bri­ety. We must ac­cept that, and do it any­way. We must seek deeper re­la­tion­ships, we must med­i­tate ath­let­i­cally, we must con­stantly strive, like wolves of Wall Street, ex­cept not in pur­suit of money, which is vul­gar, but in­stead a bet­ter qual­ity of hap­pi­ness, which is less so.

We do this despite the fact that this is not our first Jan­uary, and that we’ve seen how the story plays out. Ev­ery walk through town is a déjà vu of gym mem­ber­ship deals and op­por­tu­ni­ties to de­tox. Ev­ery mag­a­zine regifts a diet in dif­fer­ent wrap­ping paper, scrib­bled over with words that tickle modern anx­i­eties. The word “new” be­comes its own prayer, new year, new you, new body, new bike, new re­la­tion­ship, new job, new rou­tine, new skills, new sex life, new kitchen, new baby, new di­ag­no­sis, new train­ers. Yes­ter­day’s ef­forts ap­pear of­fen­sive in their naivety, soiled by age – ev­ery­thing breaks as the year ends, fall­ing to the floor with a thud and dis­turb­ing crack.

Or, wait, does it? Does it? Things be­come con­fus­ing – the street­lights are still on when we wake. We try to hold two thoughts in our head at the same time – the feel­ing that we must change as the clock does, but also, that ev­ery year our pan­ick­ing ef­forts rarely work to im­prove our lives, in­stead leav­ing us with the sour empti­ness of fail­ure, and hav­ing ex­tended our over­draft for the priv­i­lege. The two thoughts fight in the dark like cats.

Is there a com­pro­mise? We could cut down on meat, drink mind­fully, jog around the park, but with no am­bi­tions of per­fect­ing our­selves. That might be nice? What about if this year we seek ap­proval, not from the in­ter­net, but in­stead only from those we love? What if this year, we for­get about try­ing to live longer, and in­stead en­joy the mo­ments of glee in our ex­ist­ing day-to­days? What if, in­stead of cut­ting all al­co­hol from our lives for a month, we in­stead in­ter­ro­gate the things that make us want to drink too much? What if, in­stead of look­ing in­wards, we stare cleanly out across this cold land­scape of gen­tri­fied pos­si­bil­ity, mak­ing sure the an­nual ef­forts to fix our­selves don’t dis­tract us from fix­ing the world? What if the change we make is the re­al­i­sa­tion… we might not be the prob­lem? And an­other thing…

It’s worked - I’ve post­poned learn­ing to drive long enough that self-driv­ing cars are a re­al­ity.

Lau­ren Collins’s el­e­gant New Yorker pro­file of best­selling nov­el­ist Sally Rooney (which I read on a train op­po­site two peo­ple read­ing her books) re­veals her to be in­tim­i­dat­ingly smart and in­fu­ri­at­ingly ar­gu­men­ta­tive, she doesn’t give a toss what strangers think of her. Qual­i­ties I greatly ad­mire in artists, but would rarely want to be stuck in a room with.

Dur­ing the pe­riod be­tween Christ­mas Eve and New Year’s Day, 455 ap­pli­ca­tions for divorce were lodged in Eng­land and Wales. Which sounds… not that bad? Re­ally? Un­der 500 cou­ples? Af­ter a week in one of their mum’s over­heated houses, eat­ing meat for ev­ery meal, a mas­sive fight over Poirot, the kids in A&E with rashes that turn out to have been spilt Benetint cheek colour? Un­der 500 cou­ples? Come on, that’s not bad.

Email Eva at e.wise­[email protected]­server.co.uk or fol­low her on Twit­[email protected]­man

This idea that if we're not hurt­ing, we're not liv­ing, well, I re­sent this

The world in her hands… but Pi­lates is not guar­an­teed to make you more lov­able. Pho­to­graph: Getty Im­ages

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