Doing things well

February 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

I saw someone I know on the cover of a magazine. The effect it had on me was interesting, and keeps re-forming.

First, I didn’t want to look; a snap decision based, suppose, on fear and envy. Then I did look, probably out of curiosity. I was glad I had – the photographs were beautiful, and the person (who I like) came across well.

When I left the shop my initial feeling on seeing the magazine (“I have achieved too little and am not beautiful enough”) had been replaced by a more sanguine feeling. But there was something residual, some longing, which I couldn’t quite identify.

Thinking about it, I established that I didn’t particularly want to be on the cover of a magazine. I want to be thought beautiful, but it’s not my raison d’être, nor is it crucial to achieving my goals. I want to be recognised professionally; but journalists rarely end up on the covers of magazines. Nor to neurosurgeons, psychologists, judges or members of many other professions I respect. Actresses and models are most often featured, and good on them; but I don’t want to be an actress or a model.

So, these pictures and their placement was recognition of beauty and success, which I could have been jealous of, but I didn’t think I was. What were the other feelings the magazine had sparked?

I realised that I had taken the cover-girl image and fleshed it out, like a character in a film. Even unpleasant films about ugly topics give their subjects a hyper-real quality, so that everything they do – smoking a cigarette, holding the wheel of a car in gloved hands – is like life, but more so.

Because it is more beautiful and has more texture than everyday experience, I have the tendency to think of it as better. I leave cinemas wishing I could live every moment as completely as the concentration of a film camera allows. My reaction to the magazine had stemmed from this feeling: she does everything so well. I saw a beautiful image, and imagined not just a successful person, but a life made up of beautiful images, each moment (the folding of a crisp, washed sheet) imbued with specificity and romance (the light of evening falling through slatted blinds so that a strand of hair glimmers).

Now, this feeling was easier to pick apart. Did I really believe from a set of lovely photographs that the subject lived well in all aspects of her existence? No, for two reasons. Firstly, that is what magazine photographs are meant to suggest, and I know it. Secondly, it’s unlikely, since real life for most people is messier than fiction. (Another kind of magazine, Heat, which I glanced through today, specialises in the other extreme – ugliness, damage, the explosion of myths).

Whenever we feel jealous, I suppose, it’s because we’ve invented an alternate reality and let ourselves believe it.

Doing things badly

So far, so self satisfied. Problem, Thought… Solution! Very neat. But in the next few days, I began to wonder. Is the problem actually that I think I do things badly? And if so, what things? And why?

The answer to this also isn’t simple. Fundamentally, I think I do things well. Work is always important to me and I take pride in it. I try to be organised and don’t live in chaos (most of the time). I am honourable in relationships. There are lots of things – fixing punctures, following maps, reverse parking – which I regularly show off about for reasons of feminism.

And yet, and yet. I tend to not actively try to do things well because I feel it will take up time and this, I realised, is constant. It might be more damaging than I’d realised, and I bet it’s more widespread than one might imagine.

First-thing-in-the-morning provides a good example. I often wake with a small, cold thrill of guilt. Having set an alarm I knew wouldn’t give me all the sleep I needed, I wake tired, press snooze. I try to get up but it’s hard, it’s chill outside. The residue of dreams laps at my mind and I worry.  What about? Everything, nothing. It doesn’t matter; the feeling is negative and needs a focus.

I’m not unhappy so where is this feeling from? In the last days I’ve started to recognise it as a feeling that I’m doing it badly. What, though? The answer is, bizarrely, nothing so grand as ‘life’, but something as tiny as ‘getting up’. I don’t actually think I’m bad at getting up; but I feel critical of the moments I spend doing it. I hound myself through such moments, I began to realise, with a critical subconscious monologue.

I’ve been enjoined to ‘enjoy every moment’ before. But this is hard advice to follow. It’s like telling a child to be grateful for a meal. The child can understand intellectually, that some people go hungry, but that doesn’t make it happy to be eating.

My new advice to myself, then, is this: try to do everything well. And by well, I don’t mean ethically, I actually mean beautifully, skilfully. I’m talking about things we do anyway, so there’s not much argument against it (except, perhaps, vanity – which I addressed a bit here). Get up well, make tea well, brush your teeth well, shower well; eat well, fall asleep well, read well, walk well. I’ve spent a long time thinking that using mental energy to do this would take it away from other things. I know people who I think still believe this. I no longer think it’s true.

I don’t like magazines very much, partly because they offer an illusion and pretend it’s reality. But this time I’ve found it inspiring. Live like this! said the magazine cover. I’m trying it, and it’s nice.

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