My mother has often warned me against turning into my father.
My father was subsumed by bitterness at times in his life. He was often angry that things hadn’t turned out just right, not that he ever really talked about the details or the dreams he had. All I really ever knew was that he didn’t want to work. What he would have done instead, I have no idea.
At some point early in life, perhaps in his mid-20s, he grew bitter about his perceived failures, my mother says, and that was one of the many reasons they got divorced when I was a kid. He let the bitterness overtake him and change who he was. He was not happy anymore; he was, in the words of Soul Coughing, Mr. Bitterness.
I remember my father as a man who could have a wicked sense of humor and did find joy in things from time to time, but he was indeed very often fuming about something. I often felt like he would turn that anger at me as I grew older; I especially remember that he would pick on me for weird things on the drives to and from college on the holidays. I was always relieved to go back to school in those days; absolutely befuddled why he would behave that way, and pretty hurt by it. I think perhaps he was bitter about how he never went to college; partly my fault, given that I came along unexpectedly and changed his plans. I don’t think he consciously blamed me, but perhaps subconsciously.
Most of that bitterness bled away in his illness, but it took facing death for him to change that. In the end, I felt nothing but love from him. But I’ve always feared following in his footsteps in that regard.
I recently read an award-nominated story by a very popular and very successful young author who, to external appearances, has come out of nowhere to win instant acclaim. An author with clear, immeasurable talent in everything the author writes.
I read the story, which was beautiful, sad, and meaningful. At the end, I hated the author more than I have hated anyone. I wanted to hurt the author somehow, find some way of insulting them, dig beneath their skin and tear at them with sharp words.
The reaction startled me even as I had it and even reveled in it. “Fuck that person, ” I thought. “Fuck them and their natural talent. Some of us have to struggle to get 1/10th as good. 1/100th as good!” And on and on I went. I googled them, looking for some flaw to make myself feel better. I was monstrous, and finding no flaws, I grew only more angry.
Of course I have no idea how hard said author struggles. Although I suspect not very much, judging from said author’s amazing output. But it doesn’t matter.
The bitterness trap is a dangerous one because it’s a trap of our own devising, a trap that in ways we deliberately and self-destructively set for ourselves out of a mixture of jealousy and high expectations.
Even as I felt it, I knew that the person I am angry with is not the talented author. I’m angry at myself for learning that someone else has lived up to my own expectations for myself where I have failed to do so. That anger comes with a heavy dose of bitter. What is bitterness if not an anger at the things that cannot and have not been? An anger at lost possibilities. Impossibilities, perhaps.
Extraordinarily high expectations are motivators, but I think now that they come with an inherent risk of bitterness traps. It’s all well and good to expect more from yourself than you reasonably think you can deliver, up until you discover that someone else can and does deliver that, and with seeming ease. Before you know it, you’re tumbling into a pit full of acid.
My father wanted more. But I never felt like he know more of what. And he never had plans for how to get it, really. I’ll never be as good as I wanted to be, as I dreamed of being. I can only improve incrementally and forgive myself for not being made the way I would like to have been made.
As I grow older, I’m diminishing my expectations for myself because I don’t want to be be bitter. I don’t want to react to forged beauty with jealousy for the maker. I must acknowledge my imperfections, my poverty of skill, and accept them for what they are.
I may not be a great man. I may not have a hidden well of talent that I have yet to tap into. I will likely never astound the world with my genius or depth of perception.
I am a jealous, greedy, hateful, selfish, and despicable creature. Sometimes. I can also be kind, witty, caring, friendly, maybe even decent. Sometimes also.
I may not be a great man possessing great qualities, but I can pride myself on being smart enough to see a mistake that my Dad made before me. Maybe I am just clever enough to not fall in the trap and stay there. I’m not great, but I’m just a little bit improved upon him in that regard. I can get out of the trap.
I made it, after all.
I’m pretty sure my dad would be proud of that.