By Catherine DiMercurio
This week, I’m thinking a lot about work. How we look at work and reward impacts so many areas of our lives.
If we do creative work, focusing on what many define as success or reward will leave us feeling defeated and discouraged. If success is selling the product of your effort, then unless you are both extremely lucky and wildly talented, you will be discouraged over and over again. It is just the nature of trying to smoosh creativity and capitalism together. The world is full of creative folk trying to get their work “out there,” and monetizing it is tricky business. But for many creative people, the joy is in the process, in learning your craft and practicing it, and in being a part of a community of like-minded people, in sharing our work in ways that have little to do with recognition or gain. We shape words or pigment or clay or musical notes in an effort to capture truth, beauty. And even if no one is buying we are still making, because we have to.
When I was growing up, I gradually came to understand a couple of things about work and reward. At school, working hard yielded good grades, which seemed to matter a lot to my teachers and parents and I felt happier when no one was grumpy with me. And I didn’t have to work that hard most of the time. At home, I observed my parents working hard to provide for us, so I assumed that this was a given in life. Work is necessary, and if you’re going to do it, you may as well do it well was another message I got. If you’re going to do something, don’t do it half-assed, my father would say.
Yet, the work-reward model left me to conclude that not achieving a hoped-for reward meant that you didn’t work hard enough or you didn’t work long enough, or both. Those conclusions don’t always lend themselves to a healthy way of looking at ourselves. Work tends to feel futile, or washed over with something the color of failure. It took me a long time to understand that some rewards remain elusive no matter how long and hard you work, to understand that in pursuing difficult-to-achieve rewards, I was benefitting in ways I hadn’t expected.
I have had to reexamine the way I look at work and reward since my divorce. This life-changing experience, also washed over with something the color of failure, makes you look at a lot of things differently. The work of relationships is one of them. Good relationships don’t just happen, and good relationships take more work than bad ones.
I don’t know of any relationship that doesn’t take effort to maintain. Certainly, some are easier than others, but how people relate to us and us to them in any given moment is influenced by everything that has brought us each to that moment. My past has created me, in everything I learned from it and everything I didn’t, just like yours has.
People talk a lot about “baggage,” especially when you’re dating in your 50s. I don’t think anyone’s so-called baggage is the sum of every bad thing that has happened to them. I do think we carry the weight of everything we haven’t learned from those experiences. That is why there is always work to do. With each person we interact with, our past experiences reveal themselves in new ways. We may believe we have worked through and healed from difficult events or difficult people, but we cannot foresee all the ways something will impact us. We are forever works-in-progress. That is a beautiful thing, or can be, if we turn ourselves again and again to the work that we our called to do. If we lovingly embrace that we are living, breathing works of art.
Many of the things I considered to be challenging aspects of past relationships were pointing to things I needed to learn from myself and for myself about myself. But that learning could benefit the relationship as well. For example, if a partner and I fought because I responded strongly to their avoiding communicating about their feelings, it was a chance for both of us ask why. Understanding why a person withholding their feelings triggered such a deep anxiety in me helped to pinpoint what I needed to work on, and allowed me to explain my response to my partner and ask for support. But I could only do my part. A partner unwilling to ask himself why he avoided communicating about his feelings meant that not only could he not give me the support I needed, but that he could also not ask me for the support he needed. So the issue continued to sow conflict. Instead of two people working in partnership to improve the relationship, two people suffered individually with not getting their needs met.
Not everyone sees value in this work, and not everyone is ready to do it. I think we are all able, capable of such introspection and responding to it. It is uncomfortable, but why wouldn’t we be willing to do this work for ourselves and each other? Isn’t this growth what makes us better partners, better parents, better friends, better people?
It is difficult to accept that someone can look at you, see the value in what you bring to the table, understand that there is unattended work in themselves that would present obstacles in a relationship, and choose to embrace the obstacles instead of you. They equate the obstacles, which are often learned behaviors, with their identity.
The say this is how I am.
But obstacles aren’t identity. Yes, our past gives us things to stumble over. But we are not the boulders in our way.
We are the way.
We are as much the path behind us as the path in front of us. But we are not our experiences. We are not the coping behaviors we adapted ourselves to. We are neither our joys nor our traumas. We are everything we told ourselves in response to those experiences. We are what we tell ourselves we are.
The beautiful thing is that as we grow and become increasingly self-aware, our responses to our experiences feel more like choices (because they are), instead of reactions that just happen.
So often people insist that they won’t change for anyone, can’t change. What do we have a right to expect of others? What should we expect of ourselves? How do we sort out what is a (maladaptive) behavior or response that we have learned from a painful experience and what is truly part of our identity? Perhaps trying to find the difference between those things only matters if there is something you wish to change about yourself, only matters if you see value in, and the need for, self-improvement. We can love ourselves for who we are at the same time that we seek growth. Those are not mutually exclusive concepts.
Perhaps it is a question of risk and reward rather than work and reward. If the journey toward self-discovery and growth could lead you toward a relationship with the potential to either be the beautiful bond you’ve dreamt of or another possible heartbreak, maybe it is a self-protective mechanism to insist that change is impossible, that this is how I am, take it or leave it, accept me as I am or walk away.
How often I have been told just that, and remained in the relationship, still pursuing my growth while trying to see how that fit in with a partner who proclaimed they would not or could not change. For me, it hasn’t worked, and I am learning to be as willing to love myself as I am to love other people.
For me, that has meant walking away, and continuing to do my own work, while I look for someone who understands that growth is a non-terminal journey. That each day gives us the opportunity be in the present in a new way, with a new understanding of what has brought us here together.
Our brains are designed to adapt to new circumstances and to one another. We have evolved to be in community with one another. We can accept who we are, and what has happened to us, and that we are flawed individuals. That is normal. That is human. But so too is taking stock of all that, and wondering how we can build on it, learn and grow from it. Is that not part of what binds us to those we love, the desire and sense of duty to learn to love one another better? And like all things, this journey begins with ourselves.
Remember, they don’t call it a “work of art” for nothing. We work hard and in that work, we are breathless, we are breathtaking.