Dear readers, I firmly believe that we are not predestined by our past, but I also believe that our past does have an impact on our present.
I was a late in life surprise for my parents, and my siblings were significantly older than me. They were in the phases of their lives of personal discovery, and the attention of a little brother had little charm. My always busy mother was always busy: cooking, ironing shirts and doing other 1960s mother tasks. I believe my father felt that his family had completed 7 years before my birth, with the birth of my sister Nancy. There simply wasn’t a lot of investment in shy, poorly coordinated, always thinking, fat me.
In such a setting it was difficult to find or even know my place, which would lead me to wishing that my place was elsewhere. Out of my 1920s bungalow in the city, and into an imaginary contemporary ranch home in the country… but that is for another post.
An imagination is great for a temporary escape, but reality deems it necessary to have a more practical life plan. I did not have the luxury of a mentor to show me the benefit of the crescent wrench, or the secret of the curveball. Yet, it was not uncommon for me to be given complicated tasks, like painting the garage, without training or instruction. When the inevitable poor outcome occurred I was painfully made aware of my inadequacies. This made me pull away from such activities and pursue interests that were unique, and therefore couldn’t be criticized.
I was, and am, fortunate to have an abundance of interests that range from the arts to STEM activities. Science held a particular interest for the 1960s me. In those days technology was in vogue, the space race was on, and it seemed like my talent in science could serve me many purposes.
Science was the path that I chose, and I am both happy and unapologetic that I did. With that said, the 10-year-old boy that still resided in me felt a bit cheated of the experiences that most 10-year-old boys would normally have.
Like most 10-year-old boys, I loved handtools, power tools, and building stuff. We had a supply of various tools in the house, but they were locked up in a giant oak workbench that sat at the far end of our unfinished basement. They were mostly off limits. There were no offers to show me the proper way to use them.
As a homeowner, I have acquired some simple tools, and with the benefit of the Reader’s Digest Complete Home Repair Guide and YouTube videos, I have done a variety of small home projects. They typically turn out OK, but only with much trial and error. The satisfaction of a completed project marred by the agony of uncertainty.
If you have read other posts in this blog you understand that I’m on a journey, and part of that journey is to rediscovery myself. Remember that 10-year-old boy in me? Now imagine that he had a friend who was a general contractor and that contractor was in possession of all of the coolest tools and building gadgets. Power tools of all types, neat rows of various drivers, laser powered gadgets… even a real Bobcat!… and so enters my friend Tom into today’s post.
I see or talk to Tom almost every day, and so you will see his name mentioned in my posts now and again. Tom not only has all of the best building toys, but he also knows how to use them.
I often ask Tom if I can help him on projects, as I not only get to spend time with my good buddy, but I also get to learn a thing or two. I understand my limitations, and I have no problem taking off my “doctor hat” and offering my services as a gopher grunt.
Recently, I was helping Tom on a project in his basement. During one session I managed to get adhesive on my shoe and then onto his area rug. Bad.
The next time around things got worse. Tom showed me how to use a handheld cutting saw called a Sawzall. An amazing gadget, I must say. He had a board that had to be removed from his basement ceiling and I would have the honor of cutting it out. Tom is a little OCD (like me) and he actually did a little pre-cutting to make sure that I cut it at the exact right spot.
With focus and determination, I climbed the ladder, powered up the Sawzall and pushed it into the board. Zip!, went the Sawzall through the wood, and clank went the Sawzall when it chewed into a copper water pipe behind the wood! I didn’t cut through the pipe, but I nicked it. The nick was bad enough to require replacement.
Tom was kind about my misadventure, but I see Tom almost every day and can read his body language pretty well. The best way that I could describe his posture was one of sadness and weary reflection. “What’s going on Tom?” I asked. “You cut through about ½ of the tubing wall. I’ll need to replace that portion of the pipe, and I’ll need to drain the water from the entire house to do it. It will be at least 2 hours of work.”
My head sank to my chest. It was the sinking of both the adult me and the 10-year-old me. I can tolerate not being good at everything I do, but messing up two for two made me feel terrible. I really wanted to help my friend, and even doing simple gopher tasks would take some burden off of his job. However, any benefit that I could have possibly given was wiped out by my unintentional and foolish actions.
The 10-year-old in me was also devastated. I resisted the initial panic that I felt. It was the panic that took me back to all of the times that I didn’t do things right growing up. I flashed back to the looks of disgust, the name calling, and the humiliation from my past failings. A terrible and sickening feeling.
I sincerely made my amends to Tom, but inwardly I felt bad. I have spent much of my life being good at things. Here was something that I wanted to be good at, but I simply wasn’t. No one was yelling at me, no one was calling me names, no one was humiliating me… I was doing all of that to myself. An old and forgotten tape was playing in my head, and frankly, I hated it.
There are some benefits of being a psychiatrist. The same understanding and techniques that I use to help patients can also be applied to myself. Cognitively, I knew that Tom wasn’t angry with me. He showed me that by his actions. Mentioning my misadventure would instantly have Tom holding up an imaginary Sawzall while making a loud buzzing sound. “You didn’t need to Rambo it Mike.” He would laugh. I also knew that I was inexperienced. I may not have it in me to became a master builder, but I certainly would improve with practice, and making mistakes is part of that process.
In the past I would have retreated and returned to my comfort zone, doing things that I’m good at. However, I am in the present and not in the past. That 10-year-old boy needs to be heard. I need to be heard.
I also realize that as an adult I am not limited in the ways I was limited as a child. Not only could I try again, it was also OK for me to ask for help from Tom again. My past doesn’t have to be my present. I don’t need to be perfect for others to like me. I can be imperfect and still have worth and value.
Tom is good natured, and he has agreed to have me help him with the next phase of his project. I am excited about the prospect of sweeping a floor, and perhaps doing a real tasks or two. I can’t guarantee that I won’t screw up again. I will honestly try to do my best, and I will continue to strive and learn with each task that I do.
I don’t have to listen to the tapes of my past, I can create my own new MP3 of who I am. There is a certain joy and there is a certain freedom that I feel by not having to be perfect at everything. I can’t wait until I get my hands on a power tool again. Why? Because I love that 10-year-old in me, and I want to nurture and take care of him. As he grows, so do I.
Today my goals are to face my fears, move forward, accept my imperfections, and allow myself to be helped by others.