“You like to drape yourself in things,” he observed. I tipped my chin down, looking at the blue blanket covering my chest, lap, and feet. Earlier that day, I’d been wearing a scarf. He wasn’t wrong.
“It’s like… you want everything to feel like a story,” he said. I wasn’t sure what he was trying to say.
And two weeks later, I’m still not sure what he meant, but I know what I eventually realized by replaying his words in my head — sounding them out, writing them down.
Real life and the stories I read and write are pretty similar but differ in one BIG respect: the “realm of good and evil” in storybooks portrays a fundamental separation between heroes and villains — a deep, marked line you can sometimes get across but that still places you either here or there. In real life, it’s just not like that.
Stories usually present characters who (either right from the start or by the end of the read) fall into one of two categories: heroes or villains. As we read the lines themselves and everything between them, we typically identify with the hero — the poor, victimized, capable and brave one — and steel our hearts against the villain — the bad guy; the one we feel the story could do without.
Because in real life, we view ourselves as the hero, making the people who hurt, ignore, or intimidate us automatically become villains. Sound about right?
Sure; we’ve bumped into heroes other than ourselves along the way: the person who’s let us merge onto the interstate during heavy traffic; the cashier who said “hey, it rang up wrong, so it’s free!”; the guy or gal who kissed us and promised they’d never leave (spoiler: this kinda hero usually goes villain, in the end); and the animals that keep us from swerving into oncoming traffic because they’re just so good, so much better than us, and we love taking care of them and we love them loving us.
But I’m going to share with you the mental newsflash that I wasn’t sure (at first) how to take: Outside of storybooks, NONE of us are just heroes or just villains. We’re both. Always.
We’re all said to have character, and our characters seem to indicate our general caliber — the types of decisions we’re known to make, and the fine or fucked quality of our souls. But our characters are not (like a baked-and-cooled cheesecake) permanently set; mostly-good people can do bad things, and typically-bad people can do very good things.
We’re also a little biased when it comes to assessing our own characters versus the characters of others. We may fancy ourselves a “decent person who occasionally slips up” (aka hero) while dubbing the jerk who lied about xyz a villain because they did something – one single thing – we didn’t like. Is that fair (or accurate)? Of course it isn’t!
I just read about that “phenomenon” earlier this year — how we use the poor actions of others to malign their characters but excuse our own poor actions as a rare step outside of character. We call the person who cut us off in traffic a jackass, assuming they deliberately ticked us off because they either wanted to or believe themselves to be superior, while excusing ourselves cutting someone off as harmless because oh, I’m just in a real hurry today — I didn’t realize that lane was ending! — I don’t usually do this kinda thing…
False. You are, like everyone else in traffic, a sometimes-jackass. And in case it isn’t clear, that’s what they are, too; a SOMETIMES-jackass. Not a perma-jackass.
So if we can’t call ourselves and the ones we like winners (heroes) and lump the rest of ’em together as losers (villains) , then what? Then it puts us all in the same bin: villain-heroes slash hero-villains… in other words, human beings who are probably (I still believe this) innately good but have the ability to make poor decisions (or great decisions) DAILY regardless of track record.
So the guy who murdered my dog isn’t just a villain; the uncle who gifted me with a ’99 Neon eleven years ago isn’t only a hero; the boys who used me and made me feel like burnt toast aren’t wholehearted villains; the best friend who made a cranberry orange cheesecake for my birthday this year isn’t 100% sweet all of the time; and the girl who made fun of my granny panties in middle school isn’t a total witch.
We’re all sometimes-nice, sometimes-mean human beings. If you’ve been really mean, you’re still capable of being nice; and if you’ve been mostly nice, it doesn’t give you a free pass to be “a little mean.”
Related Sidebar: I knew I’d hurt someone’s feelings for a while but didn’t know how to address the matter slash go about apologizing. I finally tried a week ago. I left a birthday card on her desk, asked her to please talk with me over coffee, and apologized for any discomfort/lack of peace I’d caused her. She said she wouldn’t take me up on the offer and that it simply was what it was.
I came home and told Charlie that I felt terrible. “I really want to make peace with her,” I said. “I don’t want to make anyone unhappy, but in scenarios where I have, I want to end it and make up for it…”
He shook his head. “You’ve asked her to forgive you; it’s her choice now whether she does or doesn’t. All you need to do now is forgive yourself and let yourself have peace. That isn’t someone else’s decision.”
While I know he’s right, it’s still hard: liking yourself when you know other people don’t. So I’m trying to picture it like this: I like pickles in my grilled cheese and mashed potatoes on my pizza, but not everyone does, and similarly, not everyone will like or accept me. That’s okay. Sometimes, it’s a mere matter of preference.
My best advice in light of the fact that we’re all hero-villains/villain-heroes: Be your best, do good things, and practice empathy; hurt people usually hurt people, so if someone’s being unkind to you, keep that in mind. You’ve been unkind before — would someone being mean have helped you in that situation?
A second piece of advice: Don’t keep tally of your nice words and acts and intentions versus the world’s… we’re all in a state of flux, changing for the better or worse every day, and the season I’m in right now could be totally different from yours. My worst days and your best ones — they aren’t to be used for comparison. Harboring jealousy or resentment hurts you more than anybody. Like my friend John said earlier today: Old news is old news.
Heroes versus villains — that shit’s for the storybooks. In reality, our default is something like swimming along the line of two oceans touching each other — and I hope we CHOOSE to be nice, good, and kind today, and tomorrow, and this fall, and next spring…
Still here — just keep swimming, just keep swimming…