This past week end I went to my high school reunion. It was a BIG year and yet at the drinks reception there were only about 6 of us (maybe 10% of everyone who could have come) and at the lunch on Saturday I was the only one from my class. People at the reunion had various hypotheses about why my year (and the few years above and below it) are not coming to reunions and don’t seem to want to be “found” by the alumni office. They were fine hypotheses and they made me think about why I was there. This was the first reunion I had ever been to and it just so happens that a couple of things had come together to enable my attendance:
1. I was in Toronto at Easter visiting my parents.
2. I am happy.
There have been years when I have been happy but was too far away from Toronto to attend a reunion. There have also been years when I was close enough to attend but was too unhappy to do so. I am not a depressive, I am not in the care of a doctor or on any medication, but there have been some years when I have been just so overwhelmingly blue. For most of my thirties I was in the infamous “desert of the thirties” – the decade where women who are not (or no longer) in a committed relationship feel like they will never never be in one. Sincerely, it was dreadful. At times I was simply in despair, and it felt like everyone else’s life was much more interesting, successful, and “normal” than mine. Believer me, I know what it is to get up every morning feeling like a failure.
A great friend of mine once asked me if I considered anyone I knew (or knew of) as a failure: Did I think of anyone – anyone at all – in those terms. The answer is no. Not even people I don’t like or respect. Logically therefore, my friend said, nobody thinks of you that way either. I derived comfort from that although of course it did not completely help me overcome my feelings at the time.
I think the problem is that I was reared on a strict diet of Walt Disney, happy endings, and other people’s Christmas cards that detail the success of everyone in the family, including the pets. This rearing made me believe that if I was struggling I must be failing because nobody else seemed to be struggling – and if they were they certainly were not talking about it. Unwilling to talk about my feelings with any but my closest friends, I was absolutely unable to face people I had not seen in years and whom, I assumed, were leading if not charmed lives, certainly lives that were more “happy” than mine.
Of course the reality is not true: death, divorce, illness, unemployment, financial problems, being single, being in an unhappy relationship, hating your job – i.e.: struggle – dogs almost every one at some point or another in their lives. In our fear of being rejected for being the odd one out (remember, we are tribal), we isolate ourselves (better to choose isolation than have it foist upon us) which is of course the opposite of what we need. Selling bread in my local community forced me to get out and talk to all sorts of people. My bread, the bread classes and microbakery courses I teach make a lot of people happy and their appreciation makes me happy. Meeting customers over weeks and months and years has enabled me to build strong relationships that are supportive and nurturing. Meeting students, even if it is just for half a day, is a completely positive experience that gives me energy and hope even as it gives students a new skill and a sense of pride and wonder. Meeting and getting to know Bread Angels who are committed to building relationships thorough their bread inspires me every day. Overcoming my feelings of isolation simply by building these virtuous relationships enabled me to go out into the world knowing I was not alone in my feelings and, therefore, was open to developing more relationships – including the ones with old school mates.
Most of the people with whom I went to school (like most of us) have struggled in one way or another over the years. They are kind, interesting and interested people and I am certain this is partly because we were shaped by the culture of our school which seeks to develop compassion in its students. I don’t know why so many people did not come to the reunion but I do know if they had come they would have, like me, had a very warm reception from a group of people who who do their best and who want nothing but the best for everyone else. Surely that’s what it means to succeed.