November 18, 2021

The Margaret Atwood Quote that reminds me to Soften.


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I am so stubborn sometimes.

For me, everything tends to become black and white and neatly organized into “good” and “bad.”

I’m horrible about this especially when it comes to people. I often have to remind myself that someone who’s upset me, even with something minor, is not immediately the most evil person to walk this earth. (Because if that’s the case, logic says I must be wholly evil, too.)

My stubbornness affects me in many more mundane ways in my day-to-day life. It’s my way or the highway when it comes to making even small decisions at home.

I’m just sort of terrible with grey areas. I remember feeling frustrated and confused the first time I heard my boss say something was “happy-sad.” To me, that was impossible. Clearly, at that point in my life, I had not stopped to explore how emotionally complex some situations can be.

Reading this quote from one of my favorite Canadians, Margaret Atwood, put me in my place.

“Optimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. I’m a realist.” ~ Margaret Atwood

I realized that an in-between, a some of this and some of that, is possible. I started allowing more grey areas to creep into my life and my relationships. Margaret Atwood doesn’t let herself be too swayed by either the good or bad. She allows herself to see what is—and sometimes, that’s not such a neatly organized, black-and-white thing.

I liken this to Buddhism’s “middle way.” This is considered to be one of Buddha’s first teachings, which asks followers not fall into one extreme or another—pleasure or pain, good or bad, self-gratification or self-mortification. It’s one of the teachings that I have most appreciated when learning about this religion.

We had our first big snowfall this past Monday, and as usual, it takes everyone some time to become accustomed to winter driving again. Plus, to be honest, our city isn’t the greatest when it comes to timely winter road maintenance.

The desk in my second-floor home office is right next to a window overlooking our street. When my son came into the room to chat, we noticed that quite a few cars were spinning out on a particularly slippery corner.

He said to me, “Anyone living in this province without proper winter tires by now is just dumb.”

I’ve seen this sentiment floating around on social media too from people in my area, and in years past, I would have agreed with him.

But this time, I disagreed. I reminded him that as a young, single mother, the only time I had winter tires for my car was when my dad gave me a secondhand set. I could never have afforded to buy them myself. There are plenty of reasons why people aren’t perfectly prepared to drive in winter, with finances being a major factor for many, especially in the area we live. But on top of that, there are plenty of newcomers who are still learning the winter-in-Canada ropes. Or maybe they’re dealing with life stuff and just didn’t get a chance to make the appointment yet for a tire swap.

“It’s not so black-and-white, kiddo,” I told him. “Just think about any time you’ve made a mistake or been late or were caught unaware. Does that make you dumb or lazy? Was I dumb and lazy when you were young and I barely had two nickels to rub together? Could you afford your own winter tires if you weren’t living at home for free? Not everyone has that privilege. Being able to afford winter tires now is a privilege for me. It feels extravagant sometimes.”

And that’s when I saw him soften, similar to how I’d softened in many ways after reading Margaret Atwood’s quote. Nothing is all good or all bad, especially people, but it’s too easy to fall into that trap. More often, we do it with the negative things in life, but it’s also true for when things are really good—like the honeymoon phase of a relationship.

Maybe even more importantly, it’s good to remember this when we’re beating ourselves up for our own mistakes and faults.

Whenever I find myself in that black-and-white mindset, I try to remember to be a “realist.” Yes, things can be happy-sad. Yes, a person who hurts us can still be a good person. No, someone who chooses not to get vaccinated does not “deserve” a bad outcome if they catch Covid. No, putting pineapple on pizza does not make someone a villain through and through. (And for the record, I’m both vaccinated and a pineapple on pizza gal all the way.)

That doesn’t mean we need to make excuses for someone’s bad behavior, or that we need to go searching for something negative when we fall into good times. But reality is much more complex than our black-and-white thinking and hardly ever neatly organized into simply good and bad. So, I continue to do the work of softening myself with that notion, thanks to Margaret Atwood.

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