When I was in my pre-teen years, the powers that be in my family decided to enroll me in a beauty pageant. I will leave the debate about the wisdom of this decision for another post; suffice it to say it got me off the couch, away from the television, and taught me some amazing lessons. In true “tiger mom” fashion, we proceeded full force ahead; no expense was spared. For the talent portion of the competition, my mother choreographed a beautiful ballet, that conceptually involved me emerging from an imaginary oyster shell as a newly formed pearl. This particular choreography required me to dance on my toes (“en pointe” as it’s called).
The problem was that I was an amateur ballet dancer with nowhere near the technical mastery required for that caliber performance. “No problem. You can do it. I believe in you. We will find a way. We have six months to get you there.” For better or worse, my mother’s faith in my ability to do just about anything is infinite.
And with that, my parents hired a retired ballerina from the Kiev ballet, moved her into our house, and turned one of the spare bedrooms into a complete ballet studio (installing a full wall of mirrors and regulation height ballet bar). If memory serves, Ludmilla was the name of my new slave-driver. She kept me in that studio for hours upon hours every single day. It was all the benefits of soviet-style training in the comfort of my childhood home in Brooklyn. Awesome, right?
I can’t say that I hated all of it, but this training coincided with summer vacation, and while all of my friends came over to swim in our pool, I was trapped with Ludmilla, in my new studio, endlessly practicing my pirouettes, as the sounds of laughter and splashing water wafted in through the open window.
Ludmilla was intense. People who know me well think I’m pretty intense, so believe me when I tell you that Ludmilla was really really intense. I was afraid of her most of the time. She rarely smiled, and seemed preternaturally to lack any ability to display warm human emotions. (Occupational hazard, I suppose. Being a professional ballerina is not typically a warm and fuzzy sort of profession). When the floor of the studio got slippery, from all the polishing my toes had done, Ludmilla would sip from a glass of water, and spit spray the water on the floor to create traction. You get the idea…
She was a fierce teacher, and I was a less than enthusiastic student. I was lazy, indolent, and performed what was required of me as if I were doing her a favor. Looking back, I don’t envy her at all, having to spend those months training me. I was a pain in her ass, for sure. To her credit though, she never yelled or displayed any abusive qualities. The only validation I got from her were somber nods when I finally mastered each movement to her satisfaction. Over time, I actually started to enjoy our training, and really saw the results of all of that work (or maybe it was Stockholm syndrome, who knows).
One particular day, I remember it like it was yesterday, I decided that I wanted a break. I was tired, bored, and wanted nothing more than to just spend the day playing in the pool. Ludmilla got me out of bed, and I decided to use my trusty “I don’t feel well” excuse to get out of practice. I hadn’t used this one before, so I was sure it would work. She asked me what was wrong, and with my best puppy dog eyes, I lied that I had a stomachache. I doubled over a little, for effect.
She left the room (and just as I began to celebrate my freedom), Ludmilla returned with some pills. “Take these. You’ll feel better. Then we can get to work.” I looked down at the pills in horror, and realized that I’d been caught. What now? Take pills for a stomachache I didn’t have? That seemed, to my eleven year old self, like a dangerous thing to do. I couldn’t believe her heartlessness. No one had ever denied my suffering like this before. I’m sick and she wants me to take pills to feel better? What?? She won’t let me suffer in my (pretend) pain? She thinks practice is more important than my (fake) stomachache? She doesn’t care about me at all. What a bitch!
I tried to finagle my way out of taking the pills, desperately attempting to elicit some kind of human emotion from Ludmilla; pity, sympathy, compassion, something. I was met with a cold hard stare. “No,” she shook her head at me. “This will not work with me. I don’t care that you don’t feel well. Unless you need to go to the doctor, we are going to the studio to practice today. You can have your stomachache later.”
I realized in that moment that my malingering and pity-party tactics don’t really work. I had no choice but to comply with Ludmilla’s demands. Begrudgingly, I did. But what I learned that fateful day was that using pain, real or imagined, to avoid responsibility doesn’t work. At some point you will get caught. You can try to avoid difficult things, things you don’t want to do, by wallowing in your pain or creating victim stories (helpless disempowerment stories about how you can’t, or you’re just not strong enough, or you don’t have what it takes, or you can’t make it on your own), but sooner or later those things catch up with you anyway, and then it’s worse.
Lots of people use pain, suffering, victimhood, or martyrdom to avoid dealing with the real difficult situations in their lives. It’s really common. The thing is, as Ludmilla (God bless her) taught me years ago, you will have to do that difficult thing at some point anyway. At some point in your life, someone (your best friend, your partner, your child) will see through your crap and will call bullshit. That won’t be fun for you. That moment with Ludmilla was awful for me. You might as well get it over with, and save yourself all that internal drama. Save yourself the emotional cost of the avoidance – it’s not making you happier anyway. Confront whatever you need to do, and then when it’s done, you can go play in the pool (or have your fake stomachache, as it were).
Gaya always told me “life demands action.” There are no excuses. You are here now, to live this life, so live it fully. Doing things to avoid life, because of fear or any of these other habits, is not the way. It will not lead you to happiness.