Columnist Leigh Newman looks at a few crucial lows that ensure we'll reach the higher, more glory-filled peaks.
1. The Time They Didn't Love You (and You Stuck Around to Make Sure)
It's one of life's little horrible hangnails that gets infected and gives just about all of us gangrene of the soul. And yet it's inevitable: Not everybody is going to love us. It won't just be the lacrosse player we swooned over in eighth grade who didn't know we were alive, or the soul mate in our 40s whom we dated and thought we'd marry until he explained -- ugh, kindly -- that he was interested in "something easier." There'll also be all those less-obvious others: the boss who doesn't return our adoration, or the cool, funny mother in the mommy-and-me music class who never asked us to coffee even though we already asked her three times.
There's no sense to a lopsided affection, and I'm certainly not going to say that the pain created is worthwhile in some cosmic way. It just sucks, but it also just is. The far bigger and more damaging heartache occurs afterward, when you hang around the non-adorers on Facebook, outside their houses, at the cafés they frequent -- to find out if they really, truly don't love you or if they'll change their mind, which, unfortunately, they almost never do. They, in fact, will waltz on to new adventures, made uncomfortable by your expectant gazes. But this is an agony you must experience, because while you can't keep your heart from getting broken, you can stop breaking your own heart -- over and over into little black bits -- once you realize the difference between what you can control and what you can't, and that it's far, far more fun to lavish all that attention on your own self-worth.
2. The Time You Cast Yourself as the Rock
Most of life is really just a school play: a bunch of creative, hopeful, almost mature people standing alone, waiting to be told who to be and what to do by a commanding voice in the distant dark of the theater. At least once, most of us will skip the horrors of that audition and cast ourselves as the rock in the background. This decision may be made due to fear ("I'd rather be safe and not-stared-at back here in my cardboard rock costume by the papier-mâché palm tree) or it may be made due to doubt ("I'm not a good enough singer to do a solo"), but either way, it lands you in the same place -- crouched in a ball, wearing all gray and watching as somebody else dances and sings under the glory of the stage lights. Worse, the real pain is the understanding that it wasn't the talent of the other kids or the favoritism of the director that put you back there. It was you: You didn't raise your hand and try out.
Why, God, why is this moment necessary? I'd love to say that it's because we'll remember it when we're later faced with the job-of-a-lifetime interview or the ridiculously handsome (single!) stranger or the coveted nomination for class parent -- and thus put ourselves out there this time, boldly and unafraid. That may be true, but it's not the reason why this horrible moment is so wonderfully crucial. When we're crouching there, frozen and unseen, we start naming all the qualities that should have made us a star, and this is the list we must keep with us for the rest of our lives, a list that only comes to us in that moment of self-imposed invisibility. Because paradoxically enough, when we do become the leading lady or man (and we will, eventually, in one kind of situation or another), and after we've been feted and applauded, what usually comes to mind is the list of reasons we should have been stuck back in the background. At that moment, you will have the previous list. Recite it loudly, believe it fully -- and take a bow.
3. The Time You Talked Out Your Tuchis
My friend Annie walked into a job interview for a marketing position and chatted enthusiastically about touchdowns and shoulder pads, only to find out 15 minutes later that Frankie's Football Company was a soccer ball distributor because Frankie comes from Brazil. Another version: My neighbor Bella chatted to flirty, funny Dan all night about getting together for drinks in the neighborhood, only to find out the next week his name is really Don and he's in AA. The embarrassment, the endless what-ifs that result after such crash-and-burn episodes -- some people might say these experiences will teach us to do our research before opening our mouths. Maybe that's true. But mortifications of this sort do have more immediate uses. For example, during the blunder, you might think to yourself, "Oh God, why didn't I do my homework?" Right at that moment, you have the chance to answer that question specifically. Maybe you didn't do it because you were thinking about all the imagined perks (the job, the guy) that might result instead of the reality (this job, this guy). Maybe you were busy thinking about how much this opportunity would please somebody else (mom?). Most times, when you really, really desire something, you'll find it sufficiently engaging to learn the vocabulary and facts needed to at least chat with authority about it -- and it won't be homework; it won't even be a labor of love. It'll just be the effortless act of discovering what already fascinates you.
4. The Time You Tried Mom's Face Cream Before the Dance
This is a true story. I went to an all-girls school. Even among my own gender, I was not admired or sophisticated or attuned to the ways of womanhood. One Friday night, there was the Snowflake Dance, and, as it happened, I'd read an article in Seventeen (I was 15, of course) about the need to put on moisturizer before applying concealer. That morning, I took my mother's Estée Lauder before-bed cream and rubbed it all over my cheeks and eyes, and then slathered on a number of other seductive-looking, exotic-smelling potions and pigments, all of which caused my skin to explode in hives two hours later. I can't believe I'm saying this, but walking into a gym filled with teenage boys and (much tougher) teenage girls, your face the color and consistency of grated tomato, is a horror everybody should go through. Standing in a corner wanting to die will not make you a strong person. But it will make you realize that regardless of whether you laugh it off or hide or flee the scene, the result will be the same. The guy who's going to like you will laugh with you. The guy who won't will continue to dance with your best friend. No one dance changes much, just as later in life, no one night at a club or a benefit or a college reunion changes much. These are dark, drunken and, for the most part, predetermined events -- regardless of the glitter ball and silver balloons. The sooner you bomb out at what you hoped would be the most Cinderella moment in life, the sooner you realize that real fairy tales begin at the dry cleaners or the dog park, places where you might actually meet a dark, handsome stranger and talk to him about what matters -- why your mutt, for example, can just be called a mutt instead of shepherd-Lab mix. Because not everything in this life needs an upgrade.
5. The Time You Said the Totally Wrong Thing
Your best friend walked down the aisle with a rage-prone, ignorant dippo wearing flip-flops and a Hooters T-shirt... and you said, "Good luck!" Your mom adjusted her cancer wig... and you said, "Think of it like a hat. A hairy hat." Your friend lost her dog, your husband lost his job, your son developed an allergy to wheat, eggs, fruit, milk and chicken... and you said, "It will be all right." All these exchanges have one thing in common: You lay in bed at night afterward, sick with the knowledge that you expressed the last thing on earth that the people who count on you needed to hear. There is no glory in this, but there is valor -- and not because you will somehow discover the right words to say later. There are no right words in some situations, and for many of us, moving our mouths into the shape of our thoughts will remain forever impossible. By failing to say the right thing, however, we're forced to rely on other ways of talking: baking the casserole, giving the bath, holding the tissue or picking up the medicine. We are fluent in so many languages, including the one that lets us do the right thing.