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 (deeply traumatic) lessons. In true “tiger mom” fashion, my mom proceeded full steam ahead, dragging the rest of us behind her; 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.” I would need six years, not six months, to get to the level of dancing this ballet required. But for better or worse, my mother’s faith in my ability to do just about anything in a fraction of normal time is infinite.
And with that, my parents hired a retired ballerina from one of the famous Russian ballet companies, moved her into our house, and turned one of the spare bedrooms into a complete studio (installing a full wall of mirrors and regulation height ballet bar). If memory serves, Ludmilla was the name of my new tormentor. She kept me in that studio for hours, and hours, and hours, every single day. It was all the militancy 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 terrified 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 would get 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. When I would get excited about some delicious thing cooking in the kitchen, Ludmilla would say “Food smells better than it tastes. Smelling it is enough. You don’t need to eat it.” 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. 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 won’t work. I had no choice but to comply with Ludmilla’s demands. She was not susceptible to my emotional manipulations. 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, and that will feel bad. 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 stories of pain, suffering, victimhood, or martyrdom to avoid dealing with the real difficult situations in their lives. It’s really common. There are solutions available, but they don’t want any solutions, much like I didn’t want Ludmilla’s pills. Some of us learned early on that being sick will keep us safe, will absolve us of responsibility, will garner love and attention we didn’t get otherwise. These were necessary survival tactics, often in abusive dynamics, but they become very unhealthy adult patterns. Letting them go can be really difficult and scary, healing can be scary, but holding on to them keeps us stuck in unnecessary suffering.
The thing is, as Ludmilla (God bless her) taught me years ago, you will have to face the music sooner or later. At some point in your life, someone (your best friend, your partner, your child) will see through your crap and will work up the courage to confront you and call bullshit. That won’t be fun for you, and you will hate them for it. That will lead to all kinds of relationship conflicts. You might as well get it over with, and save yourself all that drama. Save yourself the emotional cost of the avoidance – it’s not making you happier anyway. Wallowing in self-pity doesn’t make you happy! 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.” The lessons that life offers us can be very challenging and legitimately very painful, and they often have a Ludmilla quality to them – ruthless and no room for excuses. Life doesn’t believe our phony excuses. We don’t get to choose the circumstances that life presents, often the lessons come veiled in extraordinary hardships. Sometimes you end up stuck with a Ludmilla, whom you fear and hate, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But when that happens, we must accept those circumstances, and bring all of ourselves to each present moment, embracing those challenges, using them to cultivate courage, all without making excuses.
We are here now, to live this life, so we must live it fully, confronting our fears and the difficult responsibilities. Yes, we practice radical compassion, but that compassion comes with great personal responsibility, and it does not absolve us of doing difficult things. Yes, we are learning how to push ourselves less (in the wrong directions), and how to listen to our bodies and be more gentle and tender, but that is not a mechanism of avoidance. We still have to do hard things.
Avoiding life, because of fear or any of these other habits, is not the way. It will not lead to happiness.