Last night, on a free, low-key night spent running errands, eating dinner from Moe’s while watching “Smash” On Demand, fixing my computer, and later watching “Breaking Dawn” on DVD, the Guy I Am Currently Dating and I got to talking about some of life’s more serious and thought-provoking subjects. Among them, this one:
“Is a person only as good as the worst thing he’s ever done?”
This is clearly not a black and white question, and the answer does not apply fairly and equally to all people. If you say “No”, you have to take into account people such as Hitler and Stalin and others whose brutal disregard for human life far outweighs the good they could ever do. If you say “Yes”, you’re minimizing the contributions of Wagner, Dostoevsky, Oscar Wilde, and others whose behavior ranged from anti-social to unconventional to downright criminal. Even the Marquis de Sade, the self-described lunatic credited with the art of sadism, is a respected author.
As it applies to me, I certainly don’t think I happen to be defined by the worst thing I’ve ever done. I’m not Hitler, I haven’t destroyed thousands of lives, I haven’t killed anyone or even caused physical harm to another human being. I do not necessarily think of myself as the world’s best person, but neither am I the villain I seem to be typecast as.
I’ve lived a wild, complicated life, to be sure. In my younger years, like many people, I experienced a great deal in my life that I’m not sure I ever had the tools to deal with in a positive way, or at all. On the outside, I was a charming and bright, talented student who worked hard because there was no other option for someone desiring a better life. I found achievement to be necessary to define my place in the world. Yet, there was another side of me that was intensely self-destructive.
I’d like to say that changed when I went off to college and found myself, but it didn’t. I was still accomplished, talented…but I also drank heavily, experimented with drugs, engaged in promiscuous behaviour, battled with my weight and a constant dislike of my body, and pursued virtually any dangerous or masochistic behaviour that came my way.
I’d like to say those things changed when I went to work after college, and came to Atlanta…some of them did, and others remained. I found myself being the sort of person who could easily lie, cheat, steal, manipulate. I never behaved with the intention of harming other people, but I had a reckless disregard for myself and anyone else in the world, and even life itself. I had a few lovers, all of whom I put through a very difficult time, who stayed with me through my many betrayals because I represented some sort of exciting world, only to inevitably recognise it wasn’t worth the investment of emotion and moving on was the healthiest thing to do. I didn’t even take time to think about the kind of person I was becoming; in fact, I never thought beyond the next day in life.
I paid an extraordinarily hefty price for my poor decisions over the course of a few years, times when I did, in fact, engage in the worst things I’ve ever done. I was left completely alone, friendless, broke, and in a difficult situation. I faced legal consequences for my choices, and the embarrassment of everyone in the world knowing about the worst things I’d ever done in a very public way.
Yet, I believed I could start over. I believed everyone is entitled to rebuild their lives, to make amends, and to carry on without judgement. As a result, I entered a new phase in my life, one that was highly focused on joie de vivre, of living a rather hedonistic, manic existence. Many people judge this period in my life, as I unintentionally hurt others…but I do not cast judgement upon myself. I lived more in the course of a few years than most people will live in a lifetime. Those who were most hurt were rarely hurt by my actions, but by the fact that I’d have the unmitigated gall to proceed with my life as if the past were not everyone’s business. To this day, it’s an attitude I do not understand. Simply because you live your live in a way that many judge or find morally difficult to comprehend does not make it wrong, it makes it different. If a person does not confide in you about their past, or about their private life, it’s simply because it does not affect you. You’re not in a position to judge, nor to know the sordid details of another person’s past, unless you’re that close to them. I will never understand this “Everyone has a right to know everything and pass judgement on everyone” kind of world we live in.
If we are close, I will tell you about myself, about my past, about my sordid adventures, about the things that fall into the “worst things I’ve ever done” pile, as well as into the “worst things ever done to me” bin. Again, I paid an extremely high price in my life during those years, a period during which I abandoned and forgave myself for my past wrongs to others…for doing nothing wrong, other than having a chequered past that I’d moved on from, and living an unconventional lifestyle that simply wasn’t the world’s business. Despite some appearances to the contrary, I can really be a remarkably private person when it comes to the things that truly matter in my private life.
After that difficult experience, which found me alone and abandoned by virtually everyone who dared to call me a friend—not based on how I’d treated people in the present so much as offenses I’d committed in the past—I was forced to rebuild yet again. Honestly, I didn’t think I was strong enough. I went through a period of great isolation and depression, where I didn’t wish to leave the house for months. People took it upon themselves to attempt to destroy my life for no other reason than they judged my past and disagreed with my present.
It took some time, but eventually, I built a really strong group of friends. I knew that, when push came to shove, many of these people were the real deal, because when people whose lives I did not affect in the least would contact them to tell them about my chequered past and the things I’d done to hurt others, they were not only not shocked. They defended me. In fact, I had older and wiser friends reassure me “You are not the worst thing you’ve ever done, or defined by the pain you’ve caused those you loved.”
I truly believe that. I am not the person I was a decade ago, the one who believed that reinventing myself and letting go of the past meant creating a whole new persona. I am not the self-destructive person who would lie, cheat, and steal because life was a game of “Survivor”, and no matter what, I was determined to survive. It took me years to gradually abandon my wild ways, and get in touch with the person who was still inside, a romantic dreamer with ideals the world couldn’t possibly live up to, and a girl who didn’t need sex or alcohol or material possessions or crazy adventures or destructive outlets, but love, and a way to indulge her desire to create.
I credit this to letting go of some toxic people in my life. When I was at a point in my life where behaving with a certain level of class and respectability wasn’t a concern, I met others who led me down similarly destructive roads. I met people who had no compulsion about lying, cheating, stealing, and learned what it was like to be on the other side of a destructive relationship, more than once. I had a roommate who ran off with my belongings. I carried on affairs with married men without caring, put myself in situations that might have been dangerous, the kind of stories we all see on Lifetime movies. I met people who were unconventional artists, former and current addicts, people with pasts who made mine look sweet and innocent.
When I found myself becoming a different person, the law of attraction seemed to apply. I attracted more kind, understanding, and forgiving people than I’d met in 6 years in the Atlanta area. I found people who, little by little, I could open up to about my life. I found more than one guy who knew about my past and decided to believe in my inner beauty anyway…and one who turned into a relationship that’s totally changed my world for the past three years. I found a job I could stand for more than a few weeks at a time, that used my creative skills and helped me launch a new career. I stopped being afraid of a world filled with people bent on destroying me.
I’m not a saint. I’m still a little wild and crazy. I still like to party and have a good time, but I’ve learned life is not an episode of the Jersey Shore. Most of that is simply growing up. I would not consider doing most of the things I did when I was 22, and because of that, I don’t think I deserve to be permanently defined as the worst thing I’ve ever done. People do change and grow and live and learn and develop into who they’re eventually meant to be.
I still have unconventional views that not everyone understands. Although I’ve been in a monogamous relationship for three years, I am still unconvinced about monogamy. I believe we all have more than one soulmate in our lifetime, and those soulmates come in all different forms; hence, the perfect relationship or marriage is one that does not place limitations or restrictions, and is not defined by jealousy. I still believe that if I want to marry someone of the same sex, smoke pot, or visit a prostitute, the government should allow me to make my own choices about my life. I do not wish to have children, am not sure that marriage is a necessary institution, and think that large corporations and government are slowly eroding individualism, and perpetuating a culture of “Everyone is entitled to know everything about everyone and judge accordingly.” I am pro-choice, anti-judgment, and would love to see a world where love and equality reign supreme.
A friend of mine told me this is likely part of the problem I face in my life; not that I haven’t changed from the person who selfishly hurt others and paid a tremendous price a long time ago, but that I have not relinquished my pride, changed my ideals. I’ve suffered through a great deal, and in many ways, simply see it as karma for the unhappiness I once inflicted upon others.
These days, I’d say I define myself as a good friend to many, and a devoted admirer of a few I’d like to know better. I’m a loving and supportive girlfriend and companion, an intellectual equal to most I meet (though certainly not all), and a talented writer, actress, singer, event planner, and bar trivia participant. I’ve been told I am compassionate, have the gift of empathy, know how to bring people out of their shells, and am the instigator of good times. I’ve learned to choose friendships over acquaintances, because popularity has little to do with love or understanding. I’ve learned that life is short, and it pays to say “Yes” to adventures more often than “No”. I’ve learned that health isn’t forever, and you have to care for yourself above all else. I’ve learned that giving to others…whether donating a few extra dollars to a charity, creating a piece of art for a friend, or sending greeting cards for life’s important occasions…helps define who you are. I’ve learned that you can’t change yourself to please others, because you never will, and you can’t abandon the things you love because they don’t fit with who you think you should be. There is no “who you should be”, only who you are.
Part of that is, of course, who you were. Accepting and coming to terms with the past is important, but it still doesn’t mean I believe everyone in the world is entitled to know everything there is to know about my life. It certainly isn’t in anyone else’s place to tell them. Neither is it in any other person’s place to judge or gossip…we’ve all walked different and complex life paths.
I am no better than anyone else, but I don’t believe I am any worse. I’ve made my mistakes, and I’ve paid the consequences. I’ve made choices, and positive or negative, had to deal with the fallout. If you look at the world around us, obsessed with scandal and self-destructive behaviour and lack of connection with others, and the idea that sex and money make the world go round, there’s little I’ve done that seems too scandalous. I suspect trading stories with Angelina Jolie or Kim Kardashian or any of Atlanta’s “Real Housewives” would leave me looking like a choirgirl in comparison.
Yet, although I am not famous or notable or anyone special in any way, I live in a world where people repeatedly think my past is their business, and they have an obligation to bring it into my present. This happens in the forms of stories I hear from across the country, people I barely knew who attempt to embarrass me in public settings should there be an encounter, and those who send e-mails to people I care about, re-hashing the past in an ultimately painful way.
At what point in life has a person redeemed herself? At what point is it safe to say “I’ve moved on, and I don’t understand why so many others, particularly those who will never again encounter me, cannot.”
I am not who I was at 19, or 22, or even 27. I suspect few of us are. And many of us have more than a few transgressions that have been forgiven, and made personal life choices that are none of the world’s concern.
I have a good friend in NYC who shares a similar story; the more high-profile her life becomes, the more she has those determined to bring up her past in an attempt to humiliate, discredit, or make her an object of ridicule and ostracism.
My life is not a high-profile one, and those who I love and trust enough to discuss matters like my past know what there is to know about me. Shockingly, I’ve learned there are far more people in my life who know about the stories from my past, and still love and accept me. I’ve been blessed to learn that for many, friendship and love is fairly unconditional.
I have moved on. I am a different person with a different life, surrounded by different people, focusing on different goals. It is unfair to be repeatedly cast in a light that’s no longer reflective of who I am, and to be judged upon the past rather than the present.
This year, the tarot reader at my party told me that in order to move on with a prosperous future, I had to make peace with my past. I believe I’ve done that. I only wish everyone else would choose to let it be.
If I *do* deserve to be defined by the worst thing I’ve ever done, it means so does everyone else in the world. And, were all the skeletons to be released from the closets of everyone you know by others who believe “it’s only right that everyone knows, I think the world would struggle greatly.
Even in today’s day and age, certain things are entitled to be kept private. And, when I choose to share those secrets in my life with someone I love or care about or respect, that should be my choice, and not anyone else’s.
My past does not change the person I am today. Judge me on what I am to you *now*, not on what and where and who I’ve been.
After all, no matter who you are, I do not think you are the worst thing you’ve ever done. I think you are a complex human being, and until I walk a mile in your shoes, I cannot understand your life or your choices. I do know, beyond a doubt, that everyone changes.
Once upon a time, a friend of mine advised me not to take it all so seriously, to be so hurt by incidents that constantly rehashed the mistakes of my past or put me in situations where my lifestyle was open to judgment. He told me, “Life is just like the movies. People are comfortable with the idea of heroes and villains, even though neither is so clear-cut. For some reason, you’ve been cast as a villainess in your own life, and your major transgression is your lack of conformity.”
Whether or not I am destined to play one in life, on stage, or anywhere else in the world, I am no villain. I’m extraordinarily emotional, and have a definite need to be liked. Judgment hurts me, being overlooked and gossiped about and ostracised hurts me…but not enough for me to lose sight of who I am, where I’ve been, and where I am going.
In my way, I possess a tremendous strength, and a kindness of heart, a unique and endearing soul, and keen survival instincts. I may not have always made use of these gifts, but I know now they are mine.
And what about you, dear readers? Are you ultimately and permanently defined by the worst thing you’ve ever done?
Addendum: The Guy I Am Currently Dating pointed out that this question is a complex on explored in one of my favourite books/musicals, Les Miserables. It’s a very multi-faceted story, and explores the question from multiple perspectives: Can a person be defined as anything other than the worst thing he’s ever done? An important element of the story is that while Jean Valjean finds himself beaten down by judgement for his past and ultimately returns to a life of crime once he sees he will always be thought of as a criminal, and unable to succeed or survive in a difficult time, it is the love and compassion shown to him by a priest he attempts to rob that transforms his life and his character. The final sentiment of the musical?
“Remember the truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God.”