The Best of Ourselves
“…but I am, in my deep soul, happiest on the moors — my deepest soul-scape, in the hills by the Spanish Mediterranean, in the old, history-crusted and still gracious, spacious cities: Paris, Rome.” – Sylvia Plath
On slow, scattered days like these, I cannot help but think of Spain. Sure, I miss the cobblestoned streets, the post-churros lethargy, the fact that all good things come in rhyme (see: fiesta and siesta). But more than that, I miss the person I was in that sun-soaked land; looking through my pictures, I am overwhelmed just by how happy I look, a far cry from the often bored, slightly frustrated self that broods in a tiny bedroom in Hong Kong.
Initially, upon seeing those memories, I feel tingly and warm in retrospective joy. Soon, the nostalgia seeps in, coating the snapshots with a melancholic sheen. Then comes the inevitable, when I compare my current state to my previous one and wonder what went wrong. In my internal cocktail of two-parts angst, one-part resignation, I wonder: what happened? And more intoxicatingly: how can I be who I was?
There is no harm in wanting to achieve a certain frame of mind. One may argue that that is the ultimate human quest: to reach a pinnacle from which the world seems that much brighter, more tolerable, even wonderful. This is why we constantly seek to ‘enhance’ ourselves, both on the outside and within — as we embark on this solitary voyage of improvement, we learn to overcome difficulties, see positivity and express greater love for the world.
Yet, this quest can carry with it a toxic trail that reeks of failure, contempt and disappointment. Whenever we fail to be what we prize as our optimum self, it is easy to lose hope. Sylvia Plath elucidates this perfectly in her diary entry from Tuesday, October 1st 1957:
“I have a good self, that loves skies, hills, ideas, tasty meals, bright colors. My demon would murder this self by demanding that it be a paragon, and saying it should run away if it is anything less.”
Our personas exist in a gradient: some days we feel one way, other days we feel another. Although the way life works has us assume we exist in a linear state, we rarely do. We are constantly changing as people depending on where we are, who we’re with and what is (or is not) inspiring us. It is when we fail to recognize our amorphousness that we develop issues with self-esteem; and, once we do, it is frighteningly easy to be sucked into an endless loop of self-negation and a chronic state of helplessness.
Recently, I’ve found myself in said state of immobility. There are days when I have hope for a brighter day, one of writing, inspiration and a whole lot of heroic, productive deeds. Yet as the days come to an end and I find myself no better than I was before, I begin to doubt my ability to be the person I want to be. I go to bed with these thoughts, wake up in the morning with an almost paranoid want to improve, and thus when I ‘fail’ again I begin to worry.
It was Sylvia Plath who once again saved the day.
Upon stumbling on her diary excerpts in a book I found at home, I realized that my biggest failure was failing to realize that I cannot compare myself to who I was in Spain. Firstly, because I still am that same person, and therefore there is nothing to really compare myself against. Secondly, because I am inhabiting a completely different world, loaded with completely different demands and doing very different day-to-day things. Lastly, under the assumption that I am not the same person, the act of comparison assumes that there is an immutable quality to the things being compared, that the one doing the comparing has a limited capacity to change how things are — and this is interpreted as a bad thing. But that isn’t always the case. We each have our own limits to who we can be; no matter how much we try, we can’t be everyone and everything. Only when we recognize and embrace our own limits can we find satisfaction in what we do.
“They can’t ask more of me than my best, & only I know really where the limits on my best are. I have a choice: to flee from life and ruin myself forever because I can’t be perfect right away, without pain & failure, and to face life on my own terms & “make the best of the job.””
To expect too much of oneself is pernicious and runs entirely contrary to self-improvement. If our ultimate goal is to become better people, perhaps it makes most sense to begin by believing that there is nothing to improve on from the start.
And to recognize that, sometimes, in some entirely serendipitous and wonderful moments, we become the versions of ourselves we cherish.
That these moments are not there to spite us, or make us feel unworthy, but rather to remind us that we are at our best when we are comfortable with ourselves.