insignificant moments / dipping into the ~archives~

Life is a collection of moments.
– Someone’s Instagram caption, probably, paired with a picture of the back of their head as they look out onto a teal blue sea. Or, a message embroidered on a pillow in a suburban mom’s house that is being meme’d by their teenage daughter on TikTok à la this video.

To be fair (and less cynical) it’s a true statement, and maybe a helpful mantra if you’re trying to practice mindfulness and live in the present.

But as I reflect on the moments that comprised my past week, I frustrate myself with my tendency to subconsciously filter for the “significant” moments, and then to attribute that week’s meaning to those few recollections. For example: if there was a week I got a promotion at work, that would be the first moment my brain would focus on, and I’d quickly categorize the week as “good” or “successful.” Similarly, if my brain cannot immediately access any “significant” moments, I write the week off as “uneventful” or “just another week.”

Sometimes, as I sit in bed with my journal on a Sunday morning, trying to draw writing inspiration from the events of the past week, I hear my brain saying, “Well, good luck finding something to write about – nothing of note happened this week.” AKA: “Your week was full of insignificant moments.”

But – this thought is a wonderful example of a way in which, if I stop to think about it, my experience contradicts my thought pattern.

In reality, I have found the most joy in recounting the “insignificant” moments through writing: the way you can make them expand, take up space, even tell a story. When I go back and read my old journal entries or blog post drafts, it’s the ones in which I talk about “insignificant” or mundane moments that make me smile or laugh. I didn’t appreciate at the time how much recounting those moments gave them new life, or how much I’d enjoy reading them later on.


When I googled “Life is a collection of moments” in the hopes of finding amusing ironic content (such as the video I shared at the beginning of this post), I did find a lot of that. But I also found a quote by Amit Ray, an Indian author and spiritual master known for his teachings on meditation, yoga, peace and compassion.

“Life is a collection of moments,” he writes. “Mindfulness is beautification of the moments.”

If I’d come across this quote in the context of an Instagram post or a pillow platitude I probably would have rolled my eyes and moved on with my day. But because I came across it in this context of writing this post, I found myself nodding and mumbling “so true, so true” to myself.

Really, though – that quote describes what I experienced when writing about the insignificant moments. The act of paying attention to those moments through writing made them beautiful, and some of the best writing I’ve read is that which takes the small moments and beautifies them through attention and language.

I guess what I’m saying is that you can write about anything, really. And that I shouldn’t be afraid of writing about the mundane because it brings me joy which, at the end of the day, is basically the point of it all.


In the spirit of writing about the mundane (and in case you have nothing better to do with your day and therefore wish to keep reading), here is some writing I did a few weeks ago about various “insignificant” moments:

1. The only thing I love more than a good scone is an eating establishment with a punny name. This week I had the good fortune of enjoying both simultaneously when I came across a bakery in Berkeley named “Sconehenge.” Incredible. If there’s one way to guarantee my business it’s having a clever name. As I entered the shop I imagined the opening a small café at Stonehenge named “Sconehenge” (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery) and excitedly shared my newfound dream with Thomas. I could already picture the tourists lining up for my world class blueberry scones. Thomas, however, was quick to burst my bubble: “But in England they call scones scons, so your pun wouldn’t work.” Goddammit, he was right. Determined not to let his pessimism ruin the moment, I ordered a package of four blueberry scones (one for now, three for later) and enjoyed buttery taste in my mouth.

2. I’m never good at starting things. For example: I only started writing these words because I wanted to hold Leslie accountable to writing something. I suppose most of us need extrinsic motivators at the end of the day. Anyway. It had been a while since I made any art, mostly because I make up dumb excuses in my head as to why I can’t (“my supplies are out of reach,” “you are bad at painting anyway”). So I was grateful for an extrinsic motivator that came along this week in the form of my mom’s impending birthday. It was just what I needed: a concrete deadline by which I needed to have a homemade card finished and mailed. On Thursday morning – having left the task to the last possible day by which I could mail the letter and trust the USPS to deliver it on time, of course – I sat down with my coffee and pulled my watercolors out from under my desk. Within 30 seconds of dipping my brush in water and putting it to the paper I was glad I had started. The watercolor palette, full of bright colors that I tried my best to turn into flowers on the paper, had been a gift from my sister and put a smile on my face as well. I felt surrounded by reminders of love and tried to put them from my heart onto the page.

3. My work days have been long and stressful. And most evenings when I desert my laptop (for a few minutes, at least, in an attempt to mark some sort of end to the day before inevitably checking my messages an hour later) I turn to the next task at hand: dinner. On Wednesday evening I found myself still in a meeting at 6:30pm, entirely distracted by thoughts of hunger and what we had in the house that I could quickly turn into a meal. Imagine my surprise when, in a move that was totally out of character, Thomas texted me (from the same room, of course) to let me know that he had ordered us burritos and was going to walk to pick them up in a few minutes. T!!!!!! Coming through!!!!! As I closed my laptop just before 7pm I thanked my lucky stars for Thomas and – more importantly – a big ass burrito.

Thoughts from the BART on my way to a morning squash match

It’s still dark outside and I’m walking the mile from my apartment to the Ashby BART station. I’m not in a rush – I woke up before my alarm and have plenty of time before I need to be in the city – but I check the transit app anyway to see when the next trains are arriving. My backpack is heavy with the weight of my laptop, notebook, chargers, squash shoes and racket, and two changes of clothes, but my steps are energetic in these blissful hours of the morning.

I stand on the BART platform with a few other bleary-eyed commuters and feel full with a sense of purpose: today, I have somewhere to be, a person to meet. Ok, fine – the “somewhere” is a squash club, and the “person” is my friend/match opponent … but still. I have missed this feeling of needing to be somewhere, a feeling that’s been foreign in these past years (?!?!?!) of working from home. 

I can’t complain about working from home. For someone like me (no kids, good WiFi in a good apartment) I feel privileged and lucky to be able to do so. But this morning I’m reminded of how good it feels to be needed somewhere, at a certain time, even if that time and place are arbitrary or contrived.


When we lived in San Francisco I’d get up every morning and walk to get coffee at the Starbucks a few blocks from our house. Most of the time I’d pick it up on my way to work, just before I caught the bus, but I’d also go on weekend mornings when I had nowhere to be.

Thomas didn’t understand why I’d bother going there and spending money on days I had no reason to. “Why don’t you just have coffee at home?” he’d ask.

I’d respond with some version of “the coffee tastes better,” but that was never entirely true.

At some point during college, waking up and leaving the house to get coffee became an important ritual for me: something I looked forward to in the morning, something that got me out of bed and out of the house (dorm) on my darkest days. 


I’m sitting on the BART now – we’re just pulling out of 12th St. Oakland station – and typing this out on my laptop as the sun rises in beautiful streaks of orange and pink. I remember writing something about my morning Starbucks ritual a few years ago … I search my journal app’s archives for the keyword “Starbucks.” Aha! I’ve found it (and silently thank technology, without which these words probably would have been lost in a random journal forever):

[An Excerpt From Maddy’s Journal, Dec 28, 2018]

How Starbucks Cured My Depression

At the end of the day, of course the big things saved me: therapy, medication, a supportive family and friends. If I position elements of my recovery as a pyramid, those would be the foundation. But what do you do you from there? Just because I didn’t want to die anymore, or wasn’t in the hospital, doesn’t mean I was enjoying life. So I like to acknowledge those smaller things, the things higher up in the “pyramid,” that have made a difference in helping me overcome my depression. These things are sometimes tough to notice in the moment and I rely on retrospect to properly identify them.

One such thing is my morning trip to Starbucks. Every morning I wake up, place my Starbucks order on their mobile app, and walk the five minutes to my local Starbucks. When we first moved in together, Thomas thought this routine was silly. In his eyes, I was paying three dollars for a coffee I could make at home, and he didn’t understand my urgency to head there immediately after waking up. He would get frustrated (and rightfully so), wondering why I didn’t want to lie around in bed longer or have a slow morning.

But I have an explanation – one that might not make sense to him, or to everyone, and that might not be as applicable now as it was before: I know what it feels like to not be able to get out of bed in the morning, to feel so hopeless and purposeless that I didn’t see the point in getting out of bed. And on days when I was severely depressed, getting out of bed was in and of itself a triumph for the day. So maybe on the surface it was a silly, small thing, but walking to Starbucks for a coffee got me out of bed in the morning on days when I could find no other reason to do so. (Quick shout-out to the baristas who worked at the Stanford campus Starbucks, y’all kept me going.) …


Ok, so 2018 me is basically the same person with the same thoughts as I have now. Whatever. Also my entry title is so dramatic … but also sort of true and I love it.

But back to the present moment: I am reveling in this feeling of going somewhere, of being needed, of feeling the purpose and hope and promise in the day ahead. Sometimes it’s the short walk to a Starbucks coffee that gives me that feeling, sometimes it’s a morning commute to the office, today it’s a squash match. And I am grateful for these things.

Musings on Multitudes

“I contain multitudes,” I say to myself, as I sit at the kitchen table on a Saturday morning, painting a landscape while listening to Meek Mill.

Sometimes I want to read a book on data analysis, sometimes I want to binge watch reality TV. Sometimes I want to go for a bike ride, sometimes I want to sit on the couch and read poetry. I should be able to do all of these things and not question what they say about ~who I am~. Why do I feel this need to label and categorize myself?

I dislike social media for many reasons, one of which is that it incentivizes us to label and categorize ourselves in order to curate an identity (or – god forbid – “brand”) we want to project into the world. Are you an athlete? A photographer? A writer? A chef? A fashionista? And who are you if not the sum of these labels, professions, and hobbies? I read a Vox article that summarized the phenomenon well: “’Decreating the self — that’s the opposite of social media,’ … Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms are all about identity construction. Users build up an aspirational version of themselves, forever adding more words, images, and videos, thickening the self into a ‘brand.’”

It’s not a phenomenon unique to social media, of course – I struggled with my “identity” long before Instagram. For example, when I graduated from college, what did it mean that I was no longer playing a sport seriously? Who was I if not an athlete, or a math major, or a twin? What would I share with the new people I’d meet at some random party to gave them an idea of who I was (or, at the very least, who I wanted to be)?

But that is exactly the reason we try so hard to distill ourselves and others into a compact identity: it makes everything simple, less complex and nuanced. Black and white, instead of grey. A few words or phrases that exactly capture who we are and what our place is in the world. It sounds almost ridiculous when you phrase it that way, but that’s what I find myself doing on a daily basis. And for what? So I can feel more confident that yes, I do, in fact, have a specific place or function in the world? Or so I can easily curate a five word bio to include on my social media profiles?


A few weeks ago, a coworker asked me if I’d done anything fun over the weekend and I told her I’d done some painting. Her response was, “Wow! Who would’ve thought that Maddy the athlete was painting?!”

I know she meant it kindly, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’ve spent the past year trying to explore different parts of myself – the parts that I probably neglected before because they didn’t fit into this image of myself that I’d worked so hard to curate. Being a math major, for example, left no room for creative pursuits, much less for acknowledging that maybe I didn’t enjoy quantitive fields as much anymore. Being an athlete meant that I had to keep proving to others that I could be good at sports even after I stopped competing.

And the larger problem, really, is that I feel the need to assign myself these labels at all. When it comes down to it – I’m just Maddy. I’m more than the sum of these labels I try to assign to myself, or that others assign to me. A person can’t be dissected into these smaller, more digestible parts because that’s not how humans work. I’ve been working for a while on moving away from the “black and white” in many aspects of my thinking and leaning in to the grey: the in-between, the non-concrete, the indefinable, the constantly moving and changing. I am trying to give myself more permission and room to change, to explore, to not feel so limited by a false concept of identity, to reject others’ tendencies to want to put me in a box.

I return often to these passages from “The Journals of Sylvia Plath,” which I’m sure I’ve shared before on this blog but bear repeating in this context:

“If I could cut from my brain the phantom of competition, the ego-center of self-consciousness, and become a vehicle, a pure vehicle of others, the outer world … My interest in other people is too often one of comparison, not of pure intrigue with the unique otherness of identity. Here, ideally, I should forget the outer world of appearances, publishing, checks, success. And be true to an inner heart … Yet I fight against a simple-mindedness, a narcissism, a protective shell against competing, against being found wanting. To write for itself, to do things for the joy of them. What a gift of the gods.”

Progress, not perfection.

Leslie got me a lil paint set from CVS and it’s been bringing me so much joy this week. It may have been designed for kids but that means it’s full of bright colors and doesn’t stain my clothes or the furniture when I make a mess! It’s also kind of crazy how a week of mental and physical rest (time off from work, time off from biking and/or running) leaves much more room for a different type of energy: the creative kind!

Despite having done much more art in the past year than I ever have before, I’m still not great at actually ~sitting down to do it~. After a long day at work I’m so emotionally exhausted that, instead of doing something relaxing or meditative like painting, I sit on the couch and scroll through my phone, obsessively refresh my work email, and eat a concerning amount of popcorn and ice cream. This week, however, I’ve found myself much more likely to sit down at the table and pull out my paints.

It feels good to make something – “no matter how small” (or bad) – and I’m hoping to hold on to this practice until it becomes more of a habit. I also return to my current mantra of “progress, not perfection,” because I am often my own worst enemy when it comes to doing or trying things I’m not “good” at. I get so overwhelmed by the fear of failure (an “ugly” piece of art, a “stupid” piece of writing) that I don’t do anything at all. But it’s better to pick up the pen or the paintbrush than it is to let myself remain paralyzed by my own high expectations.

Anyway. Thanks again, Leslie, for being my biggest patron and supporter in my artistic endeavors – these little sketches are dedicated to you!

[Above] Two sketches/paintings from this past week, the left one inspired by a photo Leslie took in London.

Fires in the Time of Coronavirus

Some things that happened today, Monday, August 24:

I walked to the grocery store in full incognito mode. I hate wearing shades because they make me feel like an asshole but the smoky air left me no choice. Also, am I the only one who feels like shades create a barrier between them and the outside world? Whenever I wear them I get this feeling that I’m not seeing everything as it actually is – like the vividness and authenticity of my surroundings is lost – and it bothers me.

I’m basically that Chrome browser “Incognito mode” icon.

The covid/fire combo feels like some sort of cruel joke (99.99% sure we are being rightfully punished by some higher power for being a shitty species), but at least I’m so unrecognizable that I won’t have to make small talk with anyone I run into at Whole Foods! Which reminds me of an old tweet:

I got pissed at Thomas when his alarm went off early because a) I’m on my period which means I’m incessantly tired and b) he never wakes up when it goes off?! Like…you’re going to wake me up early…when I’m exhausted…just to turn it off and doze back to sleep…and then browse ESPN for 20 minutes on your phone before getting out of bed?!

Luckily, he made up for it when, at 4:30pm, he saw I was stressed and exhausted and suggested that we “get some burritos for dinner to cheer Maddy up.” You have to hand it to the guy; he knows the way to my heart.

I did 20 minutes of yoga on a mat on my kitchen floor because I’m trying to rest my body more and not run/ride/hike every day. The bad air quality is simultaneously making it easier to stay inside and making me feel more claustrophobic than ever, as if I didn’t already feel relatively trapped by covid.

(Actually, “yoga” is a generous term; it would be more accurate to say “stretching and deep breathing” which, hey, is more than I can usually say for myself! And whenever I take the time to slow down and take some deeeeep freakin’ breaths I notice just how tense I am. Years of practice ignoring my body and mind, I suppose!)

I finished the last 10 pages of a book it has taken me ages to get through because it was good at the start but ended up dragging on forever. My inability to finish this book in a reasonable amount of time might set me back on my quest to read 50 books this year. Goddammit.

I researched ways to help those impacted by the wildfires and donated to some of the following causes: http://linktr.ee/aidandresourcesfrom805. You should, too! And don’t take for granted the food on your table tonight. Speaking of food:

I thought about attempting to make homemade gnocchi with the leftover potatoes we have in the fridge. Needless to say, that was a passing thought and I will instead order a burrito tonight because I’m a lazy piece of crap (who loves to support local businesses!).

The Burrito Bandit in action.

I came across this sign on my walk to the grocery store:

I don’t really understand why someone would buy this domain name in the first place?

And now it’s 7:41pm and I’ve had my chips and burrito and I’m reading this fantastic article that was published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2017 that everyone should read! And then maybe I’ll start watching “Selling Sunset” because three different people have mentioned it today. We’ll see where the night takes me.

Having My Cake…and Being Stressed Out, Too?

I feel sad, angry, and helpless about so much: fires blazing across Northern California, coronavirus raging on, friends who are going through tough times, ongoing fights for black lives…

I sit at my kitchen table each day and try to focus on work but it feels increasingly trivial. I take meetings in between reading articles about the latest fire destruction and the updated coronavirus death toll, I toggle between my work email where I respond to colleagues and my iMessage where I respond to worried friends, and I tinker with presentations while my mind wanders to the world outside of my computer screen.

Amidst all of this, Thomas and I celebrated our third anniversary. It felt both selfish and necessary. Taking the time to celebrate our love sent me into a spiral of self-critical thoughts: You’re so selfish, It’s unfair that you have so much and others have so little, How can you justify spending time to cook a nice dinner together when the world is burning and workers are sacrificing their health to put this food on your plate? But it also filled me with love and gratitude for everything I have, and with continued strength to be there for others who don’t have as much.

As I’m typing this and trying to explain the paradox of feelings I’ve encountered over the past weeks and months, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous quote comes to mind: “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

I had always assumed he was referring to academic or philosophical intelligence but in the process of googling his exact words I finally read the context in which they were written:

Before I go on with this short history let me make a general observation—the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the “impossible” come true.

I had never read that following sentence: “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

Huh. Maybe the kind of intelligence he was referring to has more to do with emotion than I originally thought. While I used to interpret the quote as “make sure to think critically and continuously challenge your beliefs,” his subsequent example of simultaneous hopelessness and determination feels much more relevant to my current emotional state.

(Does being in constant possession of conflicting emotions make me…emotionally intelligent? Ha????)

Either way, as I read his message today, sitting in the kitchen as clouds of smoke hover outside our window, it provides me with a much-needed dose of optimism and determination. Maybe I can make more of a difference than I thought even when things seem contradictory or wrong. Maybe feeling many things at once is a strength – or, if nothing else, the reality of human nature. But how can I hold everything at once without feeling overwhelmed, confused, or paralyzed? (It’s too bad F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t answer that question in his next paragraph.)

Anyway, here are some pictures of the dinner I made to celebrate our anniversary on Wednesday (what’s the point of having a blog if not to brag about a meal you cooked?):

“When in doubt, eat strawberry cake.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald, probably, at some point.

Good Morning(s)

I love mornings because they feel like a clean slate. I don’t know if that’s always a helpful thought to have, because “clean slates” aren’t really how the world works. But sometimes it helps me to know that if I go to bed feeling depressed or anxious or angry that tomorrow is a new day, and the sun will rise again, and the way I’m feeling then won’t be how I feel forever.

Recently, though, mornings have been feeling less innately “clean” and hopeful. I don’t want to waste energy dissecting the impact of Covid on our mental health (there’s already plenty of good material out there on that topic), but of course these circumstances are unique. And it sucks that, in these circumstances, the “fresh start” I usually ascribe to mornings doesn’t seem to apply.

But mornings are still the best part of my day. They are, for logistical (Thomas is still asleep), logical (working hours have not yet begun), and some unfounded (I collapse into a useless ball of anxiety in the evening) reasons, the time of day when I feel most entitled to “take time for myself.” For me, that looks like sitting down with a nice big glass of iced coffee and listening to music. And if there’s one good thing that’s come from shelter-in-place it’s that I don’t have anywhere else to be in the morning except there, at my kitchen table, drinking iced coffee and listening to music.

Maddy Mornings: A Photo Series

Guys.

It’s official: I have too many feelings.

It’s very inconvenient, to have this many feelings all the time.

I keep meaning to finish and post the four other bits of writing I’ve started over the past few days…but, as usual, it’s now 8pm and all I’ve done since finishing work two hours ago is listen to music on the couch.

I think my real problem is that, for as fast as I can type, my heart feels and my brain thinks ten times faster. In the minute it’s taken me to type these sentences out, I’ve already felt like…five different things? Yeesh. Is everyone like this, or am I just crazy? I wouldn’t care as much if it weren’t so overwhelming: to oscillate between happiness and sadness, to barely start to understand one emotion before another comes crashing on in. And what about the times when my heart feels full but I can’t tell if it’s full of happiness or sadness? Or maybe something else entirely?

It doesn’t help that Thomas, the person I’m around most often, is one of the most straightforward and logical people I know. He never seems overwhelmed by his thoughts; whenever I try to explain to him what goes on in my brain he gives me a blank stare or says something along the lines of, “What the f*ck goes on in there?” Fair enough.

So this is nothing but an I’m-sitting-on-the-couch-typing-whatever-comes-into-my-head-as-fast-as-I-can post.

Here are some of the songs I’ve listened to in the past hour:

  • Depth Over Distance / Ben Howard
  • Forever / Ben Harper
  • All I Want Is You / U2
  • Round Here / Counting Crows
  • Hot Heavy Summer / Ben Howard, Sylvan Esso

And I’ve been looking at pictures of trees. Most of my phone’s camera roll is either pictures of trees or flowers from various neighborhoods and parks in San Francisco. Here are a few of my favorites, before I drift off to sleep on this couch…

More Thoughts on Feeling Guilty

I wrote a few weeks ago about my incessant feelings of guilt and shame. In an ideal world, I’d be updating you all with the news that I’ve found a way to rid myself of these overwhelming (and, more often than not, overwhelmingly unhelpful) feelings. But, of course, my weekly therapy sessions and iterative self-improvement processes (journaling, meditating, thought-restructuring) don’t produce change overnight.

What I have done, however, is continue to explore and challenge these thoughts and feelings of guilt. I had two revelations this past week I wanted to share, especially if the struggles I described in my original post resonated with you.

First, and, ok, this wasn’t so much a “revelation” as it was a conversation with (my logical half) Thomas:

Me: I’ve been doing a lot of pro bono work [at Salesforce] recently. It’s cool because I get to work with a bunch of different nonprofits instead of just one, and it’s amazing how passionate people are about so many different causes.

Thomas: *sits there silently because he knows I’m entering full-on ramble mode, so even if he managed to get a word in edgewise I’d probably interrupt him*

Me: But it also stresses me out because I become more and more aware of causes that need attention and I can’t give to all of them. So it kind of just amplifies this guilt that I have about never doing enough. And also the guilt that I have about my privilege because people are suffering in so many ways.

Me: *continues to ramble about how guilty I feel for not doing more volunteer work, or doing something greater to help people, and how awful I feel about myself because of what I’ve been given, but haven’t “deserved”*

Thomas: Well, you could use the energy you spend tearing yourself down to raise other people up instead.

Yowzers. Get owned, Maddy.

Like I said, Thomas is my voice of logic and reason. Whenever I find myself spiraling down into a black hole of unhelpful/intrusive/negative thoughts I ask myself, “What would Thomas say about this thought?” More often than not I end up laughing because, when my thoughts are articulated – especially out loud – it becomes clear that they are generally… pretty ridiculous. Or dramatic, or illogical, etc.

In this conversation’s case, I was struck by how right he was. Of course it’s not helpful for me to waste time and energy tearing myself down. Somewhere along the line I’d convinced myself that privilege, suffering, and happiness were zero-sum games: that if I tore myself down, it would inherently raise others up. That if I self-inflicted suffering, others would feel better. That beating myself up would “motivate” me to do better and more for others.

But, of course, that’s not how the world works. Feeling additional guilt for my privilege wasn’t only not helping others, it was also leaving me paralyzed and less able to help others. And also, how did it make sense for me to want to ensure that everyone (including myself) was on the same – but lower -level, instead of wanting to raise those below me up to mine?


My second revelation came – in what had to be more than just coincidence – in the book I was reading: Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. In it, Kalanithi touches upon religion’s role in his life:

“The main message of Jesus, I believed, is that mercy trumps justice every time. Not only that, but maybe the basic message of original sin isn’t ‘Feel guilty all the time.’ Maybe it is more along these lines: ‘We all have a notion of what it means to be good, and we can’t live up to it all the time.'”

!!!!!!

There’s no better feeling than being delivered a message – via a book, a song, a conversation, a scent, whatever it may be – when you need it most. (Or maybe, of course, we now hear the message because we’ve opened ourselves to receiving it.)

Yes, I could be giving more. I could be a better, more selfless, more good person. But, for the most part, so could everyone else I know. And while it might be impossible for me to stop striving for this “good” ideal, I could probably start cutting myself a little more slack.

Feeling Guilty for Feeling Guilty

I’ve heard the prayer of confession over a hundred times in my life. But as I sat in church this Christmas Eve watching the reverend at the altar lead the parish in reciting its words, I realized I’d never listened to it.

(For the record, I know exactly why I never listened: because I was a bored kid sitting in church, flipping through that Sunday’s handout to see how much longer it would be until the service was over (Ok, we’re on page four now, and there are nine total pages, so we’re almost halfway done).)

Maybe it was the new reverend’s presence that day – commanding and sure – or maybe it was the congregation, more engaged and earnest than usual on Christmas Eve. Or maybe I had finally made progress at “being present” in each moment (#mindfulness!!!). Whatever the reason, for the first time in the many hours of church services I’ve attended, I stopped to listen to the words of the prayer. I listened closely, following along line by line in my handout as we read together.

And in my mindful listening, or close reading, or whatever you want to call it — one part of the prayer stood out to me:

“Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.”

By what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

 


 

I’ve been asked, and asked myself, many times before: “What’s your biggest regret?” And for whatever reason – though this may seem obvious to others – in that moment I finally understood why I’ve never been able to answer that question: because I never regret things I have done, but instead the things I haven’t done. And, furthermore, “regret” probably isn’t the accurate word to describe how I feel: it’s guilt.

The concept of leaving things “undone” is usually associated with regret (“I regret not doing this” or “I regret not saying that”), but regret isn’t something I often experience. Instead of regretting something I didn’t do or didn’t say, I feel guilty for it. I feel guilty about the plans I cancelled with my friend because I was tired. I feel guilty about not traveling to see my grandmother and family more often. I feel guilty about not volunteering as much as I could, and about having so much privilege. I feel guilty that I don’t work harder and I feel guilty that I’m not as good or kind or selfless of a person as I could be.

It’s a guilt that is persistent and pervasive. It’s a guilt that sits heavy in my stomach and permeates everything I say and do. It’s an unending guilt about everything I could be doing but am not; about the person I could be but am not.

What’s the relationship between guilt and regret? Does it make sense that in my head I confound the two? Where does “shame” fit in? If I feel guilty about who I am, does that qualify instead as shame? Is it useful for me to feel guilty all the time? Does it make me feel worse, or is it motivating?

At the end of the day, I want to operate out of love and honesty, not guilt and fear. I’m afraid the latter is what I’ve been doing.

 


 

Obviously, the next logical step in this self-discovery process is to consult the interwebs, namely Psychologytoday.com.

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Ha. Interesting. Seems relevant.

I’m writing about this because I don’t have answers (Is my guilt warranted? Is it at all helpful? If not, how can find a more productive emotion? One that enables me to be simultaneously selfless and good and not paralyzingly guilt-ridden?). And, in a shocking turn of events, Psychologytoday.com did not provide me with much insight into my own psychological issues. It’s something I’ll have to think more about. This, my friends, is why I go to therapy!