Appreciating the Power of the Dark Side

Costa Rica 344It’s a strange thing that the most awesome, talented, and intelligent people I know are also the hardest on themselves. Many of them have been more open lately about traits and conditions that everyone used to keep hidden, and suddenly I feel a lot less alone. Still, while I acknowledge that I have Issues, and you have Issues, and indeed everyone on the planet has Issues, it seems to me that the worst Issue we’re all struggling with is seeing only the dark side of our Issues. I know this isn’t a new thought (Self-Criticism), I should have written about it a long time ago (Procrastination and Laziness), and I’m sure that someone will be offended (Anxiety) or point out someone else who wrote the same thing in a much better way (Perfectionism), but I’m going to just stick it on my blog anyway even though no one ever reads my blog and nothing I do matters in the long run (Depression). Let’s start with…


What if Plan A doesn’t work? Hey, I not only have a plan B, I have plans C, D, E, and the mental capacity to come up with On Beyond Zebra if necessary. When I have to play music or speak in public I over-prepare, so I haven’t yet sunk through the stage floor in humiliation. I haven’t eaten anything yet that has killed me, because we all evolved to be suspicious of new foods that might be poisonous, especially green ones and raw fish, and some of us are still a bit cautious. I’m great at math, especially statistics, because I know how to calculate the odds of dying in any particular situation. In fact, I did very well in school because I knew I would totally fail in life if I didn’t get straight A’s. I have lived as long as I have because I never took up ice climbing or skydiving, and I haven’t yet traveled into a war zone. I always remember my sunblock, and I take rain gear and extra food with me even on a three mile hike in midsummer during a drought. Fear of change makes me value loyalty and stability, and I treasure the people whom I can trust. Best of all, I have a great imagination, which I really ought to use to write the screenplay for the next blockbuster disaster movie. Except there’s also…


First, I have a very good idea of what is crucial to get done and how long things really take if you cut to the chase. Five minutes to wipe the kitchen counter and make sure there’s toilet paper in the bathroom if guests are coming over. Twenty-seven minutes to get to the theater on time for call—leave an extra five minutes in case of traffic and ten minutes to tune the piccolo. Of course, the best thing about procrastination is being able to perform well on short notice. Ask me to substitute in a musical the morning of a performance? I’ll download the soundtrack and listen to it while driving to pick up the score, look through the music to find the greatest concentration of black notes to practice in the few hours I have left, and watch the conductor and count like Count von Count to avoid getting lost. Any missed notes can be chalked up to sightreading in performance, which is a nice remedy for over-the-top…


Obviously the bright side of being a perfectionist is that I’m now perfect, because I tolerate no flaws in myself. Well, I wish that were true. It is a trait that drives me to perform to the best of my ability, at least, and to appreciate that drive in others. Self-criticism goes hand in hand with perfectionism, of course. One of the most important insights I ever had concerned an acquaintance who shall not be named, well-meaning, I am sure, who had extremely high standards for herself and others. I listened to her criticizing others and imagined what she might be saying about me. I tried to be perfect whenever I was around her—until the moment when I realized two things. First, all that imagined criticism was really coming from me, from that little voice in my head that I sometimes call my inner Simon Cowell, and I had the power to turn it off. Second, a perfect person does not constantly criticize others behind their backs and therefore my acquaintance was not perfect. I stopped caring what she might think of my apparent…


Snoopy War and PeaceI would much rather spend twenty-six hours in bed in my pajamas re-reading War and Peace than run a marathon. I speak from experience, because I did read War and Peace in one weekend in college due to procrastination, and I picked my nephew up at the finish line after he ran the California International Marathon a couple of years ago. I hurt less afterward than he did, and best of all I understand the references in many Peanuts cartoons. I would rather walk slowly than run; flower photography and trail running don’t mix well. I would rather ski downhill, cooperating with gravity, than cross-country; the latter doesn’t involve gorgeous views and good conversations while resting on the chairlift. I haven’t yet written a novel, but I do enjoy writing songs and essays, and perhaps they’ll reach more people and even help those struggling with…


Finally, it is admittedly hard to find a bright side to depression. I can say, though, that my past bouts of prolonged depression have given me empathy with others who are in that dark spot now. I remember with such gratitude those who came along and reached out a hand to keep me from sinking, and I feel that now I can do that for others. I learned all the things that helped me, like exercise, forests, sunshine, music, re-reading good children’s books, and reaching out to friends, a therapist, and at times medication. And because life has tough times I haven’t forgotten those lessons. When grief comes along I go back to them and am gentle with myself because I know I’ll get through that too.

Spring 2009 033So let’s give all these negative traits different names: well-prepared, efficient, with high standards, observant, well-read, and empathetic. My mother recently told me that she saw in me a “quiet strength”. That strength comes from my problems and imperfections, not from my talents. It comes from feeling the fear and doing it anyway, knowing that I don’t have a choice sometimes. It comes from all those self-help books I’ve read, the people who have loved and helped me, and from Spock, Linus, Socrates, Jo March, and Anne of Green Gables. Most of all, it comes from knowing that without the dark times we would not recognize everyday miracles when they come.


Author: 1womanretreat

Kathryn is a freelance writer, musician, and Latin tutor based in the Sierra foothills. She enjoys performing and teaching early music on recorder and flute.

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