The Little Mermaid and the Last Straw

Updated: Sep 15, 2019

"My sister got a part in The Little Mermaid - I’m gonna go see it next month.” I tacked on the update as a footnote, at the end of one of our lengthy discussions on the meaning of life, or mismatches between societal expectations and our observations of human nature, or conflicting interpretations of sexuality in the Bible.

"Cool! Can I join?" Andrew replied enthusiastically. Not only had he and I been close friends for years, but he had known my family for over a decade - ever since our high school wind quintet rehearsed at my parents' house. He had also honed his tennis game in college by practicing with my mom, my dad and my ex-tennis-pro aunt. Since Andrew and I lived in different states now, though, he hadn't had the excuse to hang out with my family in a while.

He added that he needed to take a look at the quintet's tour schedule, but if the weekend of the play was free, he wanted to tag along and watch my sister perform in her first community theater production in years. A few days later, he confirmed - all clear. We reserved him a ticket to the show, and included him in the headcount when reserving hotel rooms for those attending. After that, I forgot about the arrangements until the day before the trip.

My trip planning philosophy is based on "structured spontaneity" - I get the big picture logistics in order, but leave a fair amount of wiggle room for adventure. So far, this approach has led to some excellent experiences, like living in a grand old guesthouse while working on an Oregon vineyard, or bungee jumping off a bridge straddling Zimbabwe and Zambia over the torrent of the Zambezi River. So, trusting my strategy, I went through my typical checklist to prepare for the trip to see my sister’s show: I snagged a flight with my stockpile of frequent flyer points; rescheduled my private flute students for the long weekend; blocked off the time on the band calendar so we didn't end up booking any gigs I'd have to miss; made arrangements at my day job to use a few days of paid time off. The night before my flight to Michigan, I left Andrew a message to confirm how he'd get to Kalamazoo with us. The following morning, since he hadn't responded, I left a trail of messages with my family members who could give him a ride if he needed one.

That weekend, my sister portrayed a hilariously lovestruck Flounder in The Little Mermaid, with the usual entourage of family members to attest to it (siblings, parents, and Gramma who had flown in all the way from the west coast). I enjoyed spending some extra quality time with my brother, who roomed with me since Andrew wasn't using the second twin bed in the hotel room we had booked. It was a great vacation. While I was slightly annoyed that Andrew had ghosted us, I figured he had a good reason and he'd let me know what it was soon.

Unbeknownst to me, my best guy friend had just disappeared from my life for the next year and a half.

* * *

Normally, Andrew and I caught up pretty regularly, on our musical activities, our thoughts about life, and whatever metaphysical concepts we wanted to examine that week. After my sister's play, I didn't hear from him for weeks. I tried to contact him, on our regular schedule, then a lot more, and then a lot less. Eventually I called one of his quintet members to verify he was alive. Once that was confirmed, I felt a little more at ease, but still confused, and months marched by. I felt hurt, frustrated, angry, and sad. After a while, friends helped me reason myself into acceptance of the loss: we figured his girlfriend had mandated he cut off his friendship with me. We couldn't think of any other reason. I grieved. I was supposed to be the "best man" at his wedding. He was supposed to be the mischievous, athletic, slightly irresponsible uncle to my children! I had never imagined all that could vanish so suddenly. How could this happen?

One week ago - 17 months after The Little Mermaid - Andrew texted me out of the blue. His quintet was coming to town on tour, and he wanted to explain to me what the silence had been about. So we went out on a hike, immediately rekindled our old rapport, and his story led me to an important realization.

Andrew had stayed silent because the guilt of missing my sister’s play triggered self-defeating thought patterns around habits he had been trying to change for a long time. Back on the day before the play, Andrew had lost his phone, and spent the day tracking it down. By the time he had the device in hand, he had missed his ride to Kalamazoo. His failure to attend, for him, represented not only letting down a friend, but also proof that his concerted efforts to become a more responsible person were not panning out. Missing the play was unwelcome evidence that Andrew’s flakiness and tendency to misplace belongings, which he thought he had successfully overcome, were still lurking close to the surface. Not only had he failed to show up; he himself was a failure. On our hike, he called himself names and put himself down. "I've been a piece of crap to a lot of people," he said. "The only people who can be friends with me now are the ones like you, who don't take it personally when I let them down." The association of this one disorganized day with the habits he’d been working to overcome had majorly affected his ability to recover from small setbacks. He couldn’t bring himself to contact me after missing the performance. Not, he reasoned, until he succeeded in becoming a better person.

It broke my heart to hear this from one of the most compassionate and optimistic people I know. We all do things we're not proud of; things we're ashamed of; and things that let people down. Many of us struggle with habits or mindsets that have negative effects on ourselves and the people we care about. It can seem insurmountable to dig ourselves out of these holes, and embarrassing and shameful to try to let anyone know we’re doing it, especially when there’s a (likely) chance that we’re going to stumble along the way.

I’ve struggled all my life with feelings of unworthiness. I’ve lost contact with people I care about because I failed to follow through with something I promised, and then felt too ashamed to approach them after the fact. I actually have one of those that still haunts me, that I'm not quite brave enough to face yet. After hearing Andrew's story, though, I decided that I couldn’t let myself be paralyzed by every small setback. Even though it’s hard to let go of the guilt of stumbling on a path of improvement you’ve been investing a lot of energy in, it’s worthwhile to face the feeling so that you can then move on and allow yourself to focus on the important work of continuing on that journey.

I took the first small step to let go of some guilt this week. In the last three weeks, I felt extremely unmotivated and worked only 1-2 hours of the allocated 6 hours a day that I'm paid for. I felt like I was letting my colleagues down by not contributing to important projects, and for taking the company's money (as a salaried employee, I didn't get paid based on actual hours). I felt worse because as a manager, I was supposed to be setting a good example. I was unworthy to even be working at this job, I told myself. It seemed easiest to suffer silently in my shame while I tried to figure out how to motivate myself to work more. I reasoned that in the best case scenario, I could mentally beat myself into more motivation, and nobody would know what I did.

Then I thought about how much Andrew's guilt weighed him down even after the people he had let down had long since moved on. My family and I didn't care anymore about whether he made it to my sister's play, that was ancient history. Similarly, my coworkers wouldn't care a year from now if I did less work for a couple of weeks. Andrew’s relapse into a habit he was trying to break was a small one, but it put a friendship on hold for a long time - I didn’t want my mistake to have such a lasting effect. I decided to face my guilt, acknowledge and own it, and let it go so I could move on to confront my feelings of unworthiness another day.

I called a meeting with my team at work, and shared that I'd barely been working for the last couple of weeks. I didn't make excuses, but I was mindful not to put myself down either. I apologized sincerely, and asked for their help - had anybody had periods of demotivation a week or more long, and how did you get yourself back to work? In my case, I had a positive outcome - I got a lot of support, the comfort that I wasn't alone in my experience, and a lot of ideas. Now it's out in the open, so the guilt has nowhere to stay. I actually feel like I have the tools to reset, reprioritize, and be enthusiastic about work again.

People make mistakes. Sometimes our mistakes hurt other people. You can't completely avoid that, but what you do have complete control over is how long you hold onto the guilt, and how much it affects your relationship with yourself.

I don't think Andrew is alone in his experience. I'm going to keep facing guilt and letting it go in my life by practicing bringing my mistakes into the open. I can see now that forgiving yourself for is pretty key to freeing up mental and emotional space to do whatever you mean to do - whether that’s more emotional work on yourself, or just enjoying time spent with good friends or family.

Have you ever formed/broken a habit you worked very hard at, and then fallen back out of it/into it? What helped you get back on track? Have you ever let someone down and then been too ashamed to face them afterward? I hope that by sharing these experiences, it becomes easier to recognize that we're not alone, and we can learn to treat ourselves with a little more kindness.

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