When I was a little girl, I watched Olga Korbut compete in gymnastics at the Munich Olympics on TV. She was skilled and strong and beautiful, and I wanted to be her. I told my parents I wanted to take gymnastics lessons. They said,
“If your gym teacher says you’re good at gymnastics maybe we’ll consider paying for lessons.”
My heart sank. I already knew it would never happen. Two years previously I’d changed schools, and along with the new environment, I’d gone from loving gym class to positively dreading it. I wasn’t part of the “in” clique. The other girls bullied me mercilessly. Especially in the locker room, where they stole my clothes and threw them into the showers, then laughed at my body when I went to retrieve them. The gym teacher, a grey-haired woman made of steel and leather, looked the other way because I wasn’t a promising student. On the hockey field I was slow, big, clumsy. When we did the gymnastics unit in late winter, the uneven bars terrified me and I excelled in “uncool” areas like balance beam. Since the coach spent all her time with the girls on the bars, she’d never see the one place I did well.
No gymnastics lessons for me.
This kind of thing was par for the course in my family–at least, for me it was. Being so much younger than my siblings, especially my sisters, I never got a good picture of their early lives. If I wanted to do something, gaining the support of my parents, especially monetary support, meant providing proof I was already good at it, either in the form of a teacher’s recommendation, or in dedication unusual for a young child. And maybe this isn’t unusual. Just this morning, we ran into a friend at the doctor’s office who spoke of his daughter’s love of music. “If she keeps up, we’ll buy her a full-sized instrument in a couple of years,” he said. Knowing his family, however, I can’t help but think they supported their daughter in other ways before now. As a child, it seemed to me my parents were always throwing me into the deep end of the pool to see if I sank or swam (except when it came to actual swimming. There, my dad took care to see I knew how). If I swam, good; I’d earned the right to whatever I wanted to do. If not, too bad. I must not have wanted it very much in the first place.
Over forty years have passed since I watched Olga Korbut, and I still have trouble doing things simply because they bring me pleasure. I always seek the justification: Have I proven the right to engage in this activity by being incredibly skilled at it? By flying without a net far beyond the time any sane person would have sought one out or put one in place? Am I good? Really good; good enough to deserve to do what I love? A lot of the time I’m not even certain what it is that I DO love. It seems to me there are many activities I might enjoy, did I not have this need to be exceptional at them all the time. Hiking, camping, skiing, all kinds of physical things. In the realm of the physical, it isn’t just my early training holding me back; it’s the fact that, my body size being what it is, I feel I have to prove that all large people can succeed in being physical. That’s not to mention the whole other aspect of large people moving: that a large person moving must necessarily be trying to become less large. I know I would enjoy music more if I could sing for the sheer joy of it or pick up my flute without feeling I have to plunge straight into Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg Concerto or the Gravel Walk at top speed.
Because of all those things, I rarely engage in activities I suspect I might like, or have liked in the past. So I get more and more rusty at them until, far from being skilled, I’m quite terrible at them. And that’s more than reason not to do them some more. When I do engage, most often I feel none of the pleasure I hoped for, only grim effort. That’s almost worse. Doing anything at all becomes more trouble than it’s worth.
Worth. That concept again. The idea that what comes out of me doesn’t measure up to the investment.
In the coming year. I mean to focus on things I like more. I want to find the place where I can still like them, the place where I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I want to have more fun. I want to remember that, in spite of struggle, not EVERYTHING is a struggle. Play is a good thing. Joy is a good thing. Not all activities have to “pan out” or “measure up” or “become” anything other than what they are in a single, brief moment. When I lose track of this fact, my life becomes one of unending struggle and brutality. Keeping track is hard. I’m often afraid if I don’t do the hard parts of life, no one will, and if I unclench my mind so that all the details I’ve arranged there have space to breathe and rattle around, then some will escape. Then, I think, no one will save me.
I don’t want to focus too much on the hard parts here. I know it’s a form of self-sabotage. There’s always an excuse not to do enjoyable or potentially enjoyable things. It would take too much effort I’d better spend elsewhere, I think, or How can I go swimming when I haven’t mopped the kitchen in a couple months, or But we have so many bills! As if sitting home and worrying about the bills will get them paid.
I want to nurture the enjoyment as I would a seedling, in hopes it will grow and flourish. I don’t know if it will work. But then, I’m trying to get away from the idea of only doing what I’m sure will work.
A final word: If you have kids, don’t make your support of their interests conditional. It’s crushing, and the damaging effects last a long, long time. Kids are smarter than people want to believe, and they know when your support is half-hearted or insincere. Put too many conditions on it, and they’re likely to conclude, as I did, that pursuing their interests is too much trouble and requires jumping through too many hoops. When I worked with autistic adults, one thing we tried to abide by as staff was never making primary reinforcement (Food, shelter, love) conditional on behavioral change. I think joy is just as much as primary reinforcer as any, and should be shared without strings attached.