Pop Culture
Sep 10, 2009, 06:37AM

Getting Better at Life

How much self-criticism is too much?

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Photo by koka_sexton

"I swear, I'm going to get better at life. It's on my list of things to do," my friend Jaunt said, as she tucked the receipt from our lunch together into her overflowing wallet.

Spending time with Jaunt is like receiving a giggly hug. She is one of the most fun people I know, with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a delightful spin on the world. I always come out of our time spent together feeling about 10 pounds lighter and a little bit giddy. Jaunt makes me laugh like no one else, and has an entire vocabulary of euphemisms and colloquialisms that create her own universe in an otherwise wholly frightening world.

"Getting better at life" is one of those ubiquitous things on the To Do lists of pretty much everyone I know. Sometimes it involves getting one's clothes dry-cleaned instead of putting them through wash cycles. Sometimes it has to do with paying bills on time. Or cooking dinner instead of eating out every night of the week. Or only drinking Thursday through Sunday. Or rinsing the plates before putting them into the dishwasher. It seems as though everyone I know is constantly seeking to better their lives through these monotonous daily routines that become somehow Zen-like in their capacity to be automated. "Getting better at life" involves making all of these things run smoother, better, more efficiently. Jaunt's not alone. Who among us isn't looking for ways to not screw up our lives?

I wake up every morning and think that today will be the day I actually do 100 crunches (instead of quitting after 25 and patting myself on the back for "effort,") or today will be the day I actually do everything on my To Do list. Making all of these rules sometimes makes me feel better already. And sometimes worse.

I get so caught up in the details, in remembering to exfoliate and take my Vitamin B, in reminding myself again that I need to buy stamps. Sometimes these little things are merely a way of gaining control of the bigger things in which we have no say. If we do our best to get all of our ducks lined up in a row: dot all the i's and cross all the t's, pay the bills on time every month, make sure our shirts are ironed, and drop spare change into the hands of people who need it—if we do all of these things, are we somehow trying to gain control of a life where nothing really ever is in control? Where the variables can spin wildly out of our grasp regardless of how rigidly we attempt not to falter? If there is a loss of spirituality in the postmodern world, I would argue that we've more than made up for it in attempting to create daily rituals that we feel shield us from all bad things.

I have more than once thought to myself: I cannot die today, I have too much to do.

Jaunt's despair about "getting better at life" kicked off a flood of thought about just what it is we do with so much of our time. We're kicking around for 80 years (if we're lucky), and how much of that is filled with things that we think we should be doing? Little things that make us "better at life," that make everything flow, that keep the precarious balance of all of those hundreds of weighty balls we're juggling up in the air. Drop one, and what happens? Turn your back for an instant, does it all come crashing down?

The counter-argument here is easy to see: just look at someone who is not "good at life." Messes, wrecks, and despair follow close behind. Red-letter bills, fines, fees, issues, clutter, missed deadlines, and other potential threats are imminent. And yet, somehow, they are still allotted (for the most part) the same amount of time that we are, they are given no more or less guarantees that the universal "everything" will be okay. True, their lives are riddled with inconveniences and pitfalls, but in the long scheme of things we all turn out the same way anyway, so, really, what's the point of perfecting this whole "better at life" thing?

I think the answer, as always, lies in a balance. Being "good at life" also requires one to be actually living life; the two are never and cannot be mutually exclusive. Yes, some things can slide. Some things can go by the wayside and, in the long run, they're never really missed. And some cannot. Deciding what falls into which column is an intensely personal decision, not to be swayed or questioned by others. After all: part of being "good at life" is knowing what, exactly, it is we need to be "good at."

I would argue that Jaunt is good at life. Despite the clutter of her wallet, she is a wonderful person. One of those people who spreads joy just with her presence. And that, to me at least, is more important than how she organizes the business cards and receipts in a leather compartment.


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