Excerpted from If I Knew Then: Finding wisdom in failure and power in aging by Jann Arden. Copyright © 2020 JannArden. Published by Random House Canada a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
I don’t think I became a person – meaning a somewhat capable, self-conscious, empathetic, thoughtful, kind and relatively intelligent human being – until I was forty-five years old. Growing up for me actually meant allowing some childlike qualities back into my life. After a couple of decades of trying to be an adult, I was pretty damn serious and tortured about everything. I much preferred the bull-running-around-thechina-shop version of myself, to be honest. For a long while I turfed really useful qualities such as playfulness and creativity and using one’s imagination in favour of responsibility and seriousness and maturity, for God’s sake, none of which I found to be too helpful.
For whatever reason, as we leave our teens and twenties, a stick starts ever so slowly to work its way up our arse. We get into some sort of groove. Maybe more of a habit than a groove. We abandon our instincts and start doing more and more things that we think we should be doing. The need to be practical and diligent and sensible is jammed into our heads on a constant basis. That’s the only way to be successful and happy, people tell us. That’s what it is to be grown-up. You have to be in control of your life. You have to have good habits. My dad used to call a habit “a bad idea running around a burning house with a can of gasoline.” I sort of get what he meant, and it certainly is a visual: you know something is bad for you, but you do it anyway. We do a lot of things that make us unhappy as we get older, and we keep doing them because we don’t know how to stop.
I always felt I needed to do what other people thought I should be doing. I was so worried about other people’s perception of me that I kept forgetting what I wanted, thinking I better not let anybody down or else. The funny part was that I was letting myself down, constantly.
We become afraid of succeeding on our own terms, which is so nutty. We’re afraid of our own greatness. It’s easier than you think to get distracted from living your own life.
A friend of mine was always telling me that it was of paramount importance to know what was going on in the world; knowing what was going on would make me look good in the eyes of important, smart, successful people. This was a person I greatly admired and who had a lot of influence on me.
I was never really all that interested in tuning in to the twenty-four-hour news cycle. I did not find it empowering in the least, but rather deflating on many levels. But I admired my friend, and so I tried as hard as I could to follow her advice. I watched the damned news and did my best to act enthusiastic. It didn’t last.
I finally reassured myself that it was okay not to know all the hideous things going on in the world at every single moment. If the important, smart people were going to think less of me for tuning out world events, so be it. I can’t believe I felt such pressure from my friend that I tried to change who I was. I’m using this as an example to show we don’t usually see the obvious. We end up doing things we don’t want to do because we want to please the people around us.
To this day, I still feel this strong desire to bolt out of bed and turn on the news to find out what’s happened in the world while I slept – even though I know that being aware of every shitty thing that’s going on in the world seriously affects my ability to be happy. It’s as simple as that. By this I don’t mean that I’ve lost interest in this big old world of ours, just that I can’t be monitoring it all day long, because that makes me feel sick.
My mom said that when she was growing up, they never knew what was going on at the farm next door, let alone what was happening across an ocean. And as much as I thought that must have been odd, I also thought what a blessing it might have been not to know the exact nature of the turmoil in the world.
When someone brings up the latest news to me these days, be it at the grocery store or a dinner party or a coffee shop, saying, “Did you hear about the blankety blank blank …” I am content to reply, “No, I didn’t hear. I haven’t really been watching the news.” “It was terrible – you should have seen it.” People love spreading bad news. I wish that wasn’t true, but it is. I think it has something to do with facing our own mortality. When bad things happen to other people, if I knew then we breathe a collective sigh of relief that it didn’t happen to us, and we want to talk about it.
“I can imagine.” I try to sound interested.
“It was absolutely horrible.”
“Well, have a good day,” I say, and nod goodbye.
Ten years ago, such an encounter would have left me feeling stupid and uninformed – out of sync with reality somehow. Now I know that I can’t take it all on, not because I don’t care, but because it can be paralyzing. My mom always used to tell me that I’d hear about the “big things” through the grapevine. (I think the grapevine turned into the Internet.) “The big things find you no matter where you are,” she’d say as she wiped off a countertop. Mom never stopped cleaning – ever. Yes, I suppose the big things will find you no matter where you are. “If someone lost an arm in a threshing machine, you’d hear about it,” she’d say with a laugh. “That would have been big news and someone would have driven down to tell us about it. It’s not like we didn’t know there was a war going on, Jann. We would always know about the big things.”
I was standing at a baggage claim a few weeks ago that featured a giant screen blasting one of the big news outlets. I tried not to pay attention to it, but there I stood, a captive audience, waiting for my very beat-up, red Briggs & Riley bag to appear on the carousel, staring at that TV along with everybody else. There had been yet another mass shooting somewhere and another conflict was happening halfway around the world – the usual absurdity of politics and terror attacks – and then came a quick splash of an “uplifting” story about a kid running a lemonade stand to raise money to help clean the plastic out of the ocean. By the time I picked up my bag, I’d had a full report on the globe. Why airports think it’s a good idea to subject jet-lagged people to that, I’ll never know.
Since the big things find you no matter where you are, it’s okay to unhook from your portable news source so you’re not in the middle of what’s happening every minute of the day. It doesn’t mean you don’t care; it means you care about yourself too.
A weird sidebar on the news, since I seem to be talking about dying on and off throughout this book: An old friend of mine works at one of Canada’s major networks and she told me that they – meaning the network – have a bunch of footage ready to air in case I was to, well, suddenly die.
I’m sure she saw the look of shock on my face. I could feel my forehead turning into an accordion.
She quickly clarified: “Not just for you. We have footage for a lot of public people.” “Like, the news story is all ready to go in case I die?
"I hope they don’t show Live 8 concert footage from back in July 2005, because I was super-fat at that thing.” I said that to her. Those words actually came tumbling out of my mouth, though I would be dead and it would not matter to me in the least.
“I don’t know what they have on the reel, but yes, they’re ready just in case you drop dead.”
We both laughed, but she laughed a little harder and longer than I did.
When I think back to who I was thirty-five years ago, I’m amazed that I’m still alive to write this. I was absolutely out of control. I drank too much and thought too little. I spent much of my time in triage mode, trying to deal with an enormous amount of guilt over the way I was living my life, nursing hangovers or worrying my stupid fool head off that I was pregnant. The drinking made me lose all sense of inhibition, and the lack of inhibition made me unbelievably promiscuous. I was trying to figure out who I was and what made me tick, although being drunk was the worst possible way of figuring anything out.
I regret it all, I still do, but I’ve been able to sift through it and make good use of those troubled times.
Even in the midst of all that mess, I had a weird sense that things would be okay. No matter what I did to myself, no matter how low I got, how desperate or how broke, I was convinced I would somehow survive. I kept telling myself that the best was yet to come and hoped I wasn’t lying to myself.
I had a partner, many years ago, who told me she couldn’t deal with my optimism. That stayed with me for years. She didn’t like my optimism? My optimism has always been the thing I like the most about myself. It’s like having sunlight in your pocket on a dark day. I think I eventually succeeded because of it.
Optimism is the thing that can carry you out of a fire. When you think you can do something, at least you have a shot at getting it done. When you think you can’t, you won’t. I’m not trying to be all preachy preacherson here, but you know that’s true. Thoughts are tangible things. Intentions are valuable, and the intentions you have for yourself and your future can make all the difference in the world.
Good things come out of bad things. I’m going to keep telling you that.
Let’s face it, judging yourself takes time out of your already busy day. It takes effort to rake yourself over the coals and diminish your spirit. You have to stop whatever it is you’re doing and say horrible things to yourself about your legs or your arms or your lips or your chin or your toes or your knees or your earlobes or your eyelashes or your nostrils or your fingers or your wrists or your ankles or your brain or your heart.
When we’re young (especially for women), there is no end to what we don’t like about ourselves. I was constantly comparing myself with other people, and those very same people were comparing themselves with me. That is a fact. My mother used to say, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor,” and my dad used to say, “One man’s tragedy is another man’s triumph.” You can see what I was dealing with here. These two came at life from very different angles. My dad also used to say, “Don’t be careful, be sorry.” I never liked that one. Maybe he was trying to be funny, but it wasn’t.
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