We Don’t Need Fires Lit Beneath Us


The sirens sounded behind me as I rounded the corner in my beat-up Camry. It was late 1999; I was 21. It never feels good to get pulled over by the police, but when the cop told me I had an expired registration, I wanted to sink into the floor.

The notice to renew was hanging on my corkboard in my apartment. I’d been procrastinating for months, the little slip of paper shaming me every time I walked by it. It was my first time registering by myself and I had made a complete hash of it. I now owed late fees, in addition to the hefty registration cost. I very much could have used the money for something else. And I was going to get a ticket on top of it all.

What shamed me most was I had felt so competent just a few short months before, at my college graduation. I had been awarded a hefty scholarship, won a writing award, and graduated from my tough university with honors. But after all those successes, I came home and collapsed.

The cop looking at me pityingly through my driver-side window was just another reminder that my “competence” was thin. I could not seem to get my life together.

I thought of my woes as incompetence, anyway. The basic tasks I struggled with—paying rent on time, getting a job, cleaning up after myself—felt like learning a new language. What should have been simple was incredibly hard. Day to day, I felt as if I were moving through wet sand up to my waist. I hated my slowness.

I’m forty now, and the way I shamed myself back then still grieves me. Truth was, the wet sand wasn’t incompetence. It was depression. The reason I struggled to do basic tasks was the trauma and grief and anger delayed in my childhood coming home to roost for the very first time. School had provided me with a structure for how to achieve, how to measure up. When it disappeared, I floundered.

And as I muddled my way through the thick, choking sand, I kept telling myself what an awful, lazy person I was. I wanted to light a fire under my butt. I wanted to stop feeling like an embarrassment to humankind.

Get a job, I thought. Clean your room. Do something productive.

Instead, I usually picked up the remote control and flipped to HBO. Watching another movie at 2am felt like picking at a scab: both satisfying and deeply self-destructive.

Looking back on those days, here is what astonishes me: I did not recognize how hard I was working, all that time. I did not recognize the fear I was wading through, the self-loathing, the depression. I did not recognize at how hard adulting is, and that suddenly taking over your own finances and affairs with little training or preparation is a recipe for overdrafts and late fees.

I thought I was a failure, a carbuncle, an incompetent. I assumed that treating myself more harshly, judging my mistakes more punitively, shaming myself more consistently would get the fire underneath me going.

Surely I needed those flames underneath me, as if I were a stir fry, or a candidate for hell.

I thought you picked up organized, calm, and effective habits of mind by being the right kind of person automatically. I didn’t know you practiced them, slowly, with a great many mistakes. I did not know mistakes were a feature of adulthood, not a bug.

I see that same sort of light-a-fire mentality all around me. On a podcast set in Ghana, parents put their one-year-olds in academic preschool in the hopes of jump-starting their preparation for the job market. A family I knew began strategizing for college scholarships when their kids were still in elementary school. And I, homeschooling my daughters, worry I’ve embarrassed them or myself by not pushing harder on academic preparation.

All around me, I feel this tide of harshness pulling us all out to sea. We confuse rigor with wholeness, busyness with accomplishment, perfection with growth. The world around us is so uncertain, adulthood so perilous, that we think cannot afford to take any chances.

The crushing anxiety we are all operating under makes me gasp.

It is hard not to be afraid, hard to not judge our kids’ mistakes with an eye to the future, not to make grand pronouncements about our fitness as human beings from the times we screw up. But if I have learned anything about navigating through this world, it is that we do not need fires lit beneath us. We need a clear sense of what we love, what we care about, and a deep patience with imperfection. We need to believe that making mistakes is okay, because none of us will get better at anything—not life skills, reading, bill paying, job interviews, or dealing with the DMV—without messy, incompetent practice.

I have learned that gentleness, though it is frustratingly slow and indirect, is the best way of helping my soul and my kids to thrive.