I don’t know if, in the course of my life, I will ever become notable enough to warrant a published obituary (and God knows some people whose obituaries make the front page didn’t exactly achieve their fame in a wholesome way). At least, especially if I mellow in my later years and become less of an uppity smart-ass, someone will give a nice eulogy at my funeral.
I’m not sure what my mourners are going to say, assuming there will be any. But I know what they most definitely will not say.
No obituary of mine will ever start like this:
Alaina Mabaso, freelance journalist and polymath….
The journalist part is true. But alas, I will never be a polymath.
I went to school with a polymath. If you don’t know what a polymath is, listen to this. This guy excelled at writing and English, science and math, and was a wonderful artist. Adding insult to injury, he was handsome and athletic. He was good – no, excellent – at everything on campus. Now, there are plenty of brilliant people like him – however, they sometimes lack social know-how. But as a final, stinging injustice to ordinary people everywhere, this guy was universally liked.
Whenever anyone exclaimed over his abilities, he insisted with humble sincerity that he wasn’t smarter or better than anyone else – in fact, quite the contrary; his wits were sub-par – he simply worked very hard to overcome his failings. He never lorded his brilliance over anyone and could usually be found sitting quietly in his dorm room, studying.
I’m sure I could’ve benefited from his example.
Instead, I spent most of my own school years in a searing cloud of self-hate every time I lost points on an exam, which was pretty much every time, and keeping mental lists of what I was and wasn’t good at.
These are the subjects I was good at:
- Anatomy and Physiology
These are some of the subjects that I muddled through:
- Functions I
These are some of the subjects in which I consistently humiliated myself:
- Functions II
These are some of the subjects that would have probably killed me had I ever attempted them:
- Computer science
- Probability and Statistics
My greatest intellectual shortcomings seem to echo out of the very word “polymath”.
It may be that my hatred of math, and my persistent numerical incompetence, was rooted in an elementary school classroom. My third-grade teacher didn’t exactly enjoy catering to the slower kids. If, in the course of the morning math period, you became confused and put up a hand to say, “I don’t get it,” she’d bury her face in her hands.
A sound like the hissing of water in a hot iron pan would emanate from between her fingertips. Then her face would reappear above her hands, pulsing redder than a sunrise over the African savannah.
“What,” she would intone with quiet menace, “don’t you get?”
Of course, it’s entirely possible that I would’ve turned out to be bad at math no matter what. It’s a plain fact that most of my music, science and P.E. teachers were fine individuals, and it didn’t stop me from turning out pathetic in those classes.
Adult life has shown me that, so far, most of the subjects I hated in school have had little impact on my actual career. And I’ve found out there are other things that I’m good at: like hospice care, networking, raising goldfish and making soup.
However, the problems continue apace, like my failure to keep the house clean and meet my deadlines, my failure to successfully grow plants, a failure to understand the world of fashion and attire myself accordingly, a definite failure to make lots of money, a failure to embrace my parents’ faith, and a failure to learn how to drive a manual transmission that’s plagued me since I was 16. Plus I am terrifically bad at counting change.
Give me a challenging crossword puzzle and I’ll fume because I’m never quite able to fill out the whole thing: I totally suck at geography, general sports knowledge, and the names of TV stars past and present.
For ten years, psychologists and psychiatrists have been asking me the same question. Why I am so fixated on demanding perfection of myself? Flanked by Kleenex boxes, clocks and Abnormal Psych texts, all those years on tasteful couches seem to drive home yet another personal catastrophe: my obvious failure to solve my glaring psychological problems despite a decade of therapy.
Damned if I know why I feel the way I do. You should know the objective truth about my work in, for example, my high-school math courses. The fact is, I would get some help – kind teachers, a math-savvy-boyfriend, an extra-credit assignment – and then usually pull an A-. This information isn’t meant to subtly imply my self-deprecating smarts, which would be super-irritating to everyone. It’s meant as a glimpse into the dark, stinking perversity of my mind. Instead of being happy that I got an A- in a class that was extremely challenging to me, I wanted to drown myself because it wasn’t an A+.
All I know is that when I’m not beating myself up for being good at a few things instead of being good at many things, I’m haranguing myself for having that crazy mindset in the first place. Who can be good at everything? (Except for that kid I knew in college and maybe Leonardo DaVinci.)
The worst was when I realized that the very act of tabulating my shortcomings is moving me even further away from the polymath label I always wanted. Not only am I rotten at math, most sciences and anything requiring a modicum of physical coordination: I clearly lack inner emotional expertise as well.
In this case, berating myself for every imperfection doesn’t encourage humility – it actually seems like a terrible kind of arrogance. Why should I of all people be perfect? It’s a total conundrum. I won’t expand my skill areas, and therefore my self-worth, unless I relentlessly pursue new knowledge. On the other hand, I’ll be a much better person all around as soon as I stop wanting to excel at everything.