all hands on the bad one

I am 100% guilty as charged, but lately I’ve been mulling what’s driving the Youth of Today to humbly disparage their ability to Life. You know the familiar cry: Oh, I am so bad at X!

There’s a difference, of course, in being bad at some things — everyone is bad at some things — and wearing perceived failures around like a gilded robe. 

A gilded robe with patches, because that shit looks, like, super authentic.

Panel hung outside homes to warn of evil plague within (Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin), found on Pinterest

I like self-effacing humor as well as the next artless chump, but there comes a time when you hear some of the words coming out of your mouth and feel slightly unsettled. Your internal marketing team is writing misleading copy about you and the disingenuity is gnawing at the dim corners of your soul.

These are a few of the insinuations I’ve made, repeatedly, for some length of time:

  • My carpet is stained, I am so bad at life!
  • My dishes are mismatched, I am so bad at life!
  • I don’t dress well and don’t care to know how, I am so bad at life!
  • I can’t get up early, I am so bad at life!
  • I didn’t clean the bathroom like I should have, I am so bad at life!

At some point I have to say, look, babe, you have lived without the support of your parents for years. You are holding down a job and you feed yourself at regular intervals. You pay bills. Sometimes you file papers away inside individual folders in a plastic box. You engage in regular car maintenance. A handful of people like you. You still have all your teeth. You are actually pretty fucking good at life, when you sit down and really think about it. 

Like anything I write there is some measure of hyperbole here, but I’ve heard my peers say similarly slanderous things about themselves. Quite often, actually. Sometimes I get the feeling we’re engaging an unspoken, perpetually escalating competition to prove who among us is the bigger disaster:

Oh my god, I missed my train again. I just can’t seem get my act together.

At least you have an act. I had to eat milk and cereal out of my cupped hands again this morning because I haven’t washed my dishes in two months.

At least you have dishes! All I do is eat takeout. I don’t even know how to cook. I’m a complete monster.

At least you have money for takeout! I can barely keep a job. My career is a total trainwreck.

Are you kidding me? What career? I feel like such a fraud. I have no idea how I even graduated college.

Oh yeah? Well at least you went to college. I can’t even be trusted to use the bathroom. Nope! Never been potty trained. Ugh! I’m such a toddler.

After typing that out I’m now reminded of the “Compliments” video by Amy Schumer that was passed around a few months ago. KERNELS OF TRUTH, YO.

Why don’t our parents, our grandparents, talk like this? Older generations by and large want to prove themselves capable. They want others to think they’re competent, even when they’re not.

Younger folk, on the other hand, hold our competence at arm’s length. We poke at our competence with sticks and then jump back with a screech, just out of reach. Then we do the Hammer Dance to “U Can’t Touch This” because seriously, don’t touch this. Once you’ve got even a fleck of competence on you it’s impossible to wash off. 

I’ve threaded together a few theories as to why it’s now normal to embrace being bad at life:

Fountain of Youth. We’ve been brainwashed to believe that youth is everything, and without it we are nothing. So we’ve got to grip those carefree, irresponsible days by the throats and never let go. How embarrassing would it be to admit we’re capable adults? Our social lives would never recover, also we’d probably immediately come down with a dreadful case of eye wrinkles.

Manic Pixie Dreaming. The pixie is hopelessly, helplessly adorable in her ineptitude. The pixie cannot remain gainfully employed or make toast without burning a house down, but she can do quirky, borderline disordered things like wander the summer streets in a Daniel Boone cap, and this makes people love her. It’s cute to be spazzy and unreliable! Maybe we should be spazzy and unreliable too, just in case it helps people like us.

It Takes a Teenage Riot to Get Me Out of Bed. First we were told we could be anything we wanted so we went to college to learn how but it was a highly disorienting, expensive time, and when we got out all the jobs were gone and so we had to dial our life expectations down from “being anything we wanted to be” to “being anything that pays any amount of money okay even Fry Cook please let me get this job.” Go ahead, take our self-esteem, we’re not going to need it.

We Are the 99%. Society heavily idolizes the “supers” — those among us who have arrived at popularity, success, and prosperity via the short road of genetics, circumstance, and dumb luck. The rest of us yokels don’t stand a chance, so why even try?

Come As You Are. Having cut musical teeth on grunge, we took the themes of social alienation and self-loathing to heart. In 1992 music critic Simon Reynolds said: “There’s a feeling of burnout in the culture at large. Kids are depressed about the future.” What was that? Sorry. I was too busy lying on the floor thinking about what an epic waste I am.

Ballad of a Ladyman. Women in particular have been conditioned to seek reassurance and acceptance via self-depreciating comments. Also we’re sorely lacking in leadership and confidence role models! What a downer of a combo, dude.

The Jerk Store Called. We are like this because we are lazy jerks (the olds’ favorite theory!).

Whatever the real reasons, it’s clear that we’re addicted to being bad at stuff. You hear it in our language all the time. We are bad kids, we are bad employees, we are bad partners, we are bad parents. We are bad at everything, we are just bad all around. Being bad is like a secret handshake; a home away from home. Badness is shared blood and common bond. 

And I’m finally, completely, utterly over it. I want to call things as they are now. I have mismatched dishes because I don’t value buying a matched set. I sleep later than others because my internal clock is different. The bathroom didn’t get cleaned because I prioritized other things at the time. I mean, shit, you guys. This is so dead simple that I can’t fathom how I didn’t see it before.

I can’t take one thing I didn’t perform to some ideal social norm and use that as a blanket statement to prove what a mess I am. The logic gap there is so large that I couldn’t even see it — the whole time I thought I was on a plain when I was really at the bottom of the widest canyon.

Here’s where I would normally make noises in the form of a rallying cry about how I’m not going to play the “bad” game anymore, but we all know that type of shit is as hard to unlearn as the knowledge that Jon Hamm doesn’t wear underpants. So like anyone else, I’m going to be limping along my journey for the next several hundred miles.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my gilded robe needs another patch.

13 Responses to “all hands on the bad one”

  1. 1. Sleater-Kinney
    2. YES. I have been trying to get my friends to stop declaring themselves “not real adults” because they don’t own homes, save for retirement, have a clean car, etc. It’s your LIFE, stop invalidating it.
    3. People are always asking when Nick is done with school as though that’s when our “real life” starts. Um, Nick is 33. We’re adults. Our house isn’t consistently clean because we obviously aren’t prioritizing it not because we “haven’t arrived”, flipped our odometer over to adult quite yet.

    • That reminds me I forgot to save for retirement and also my car needs to be cleaned. :(

      Adulthood isn’t a toggle switch that’s either on or off! You keep being a lightbeam of knowledge for this dark generation.

  2. Preach, Lyn!
    I absolutely agree with all of this. Who wants to wear failure as a badge of honor? And also, there’s this: I used to say stuff like this all the time, until Joe got fed up with me and said, “Look. I like you. I believe in you. And I cheer you on a lot. But at the end of the day, it’s almost like you think I’m a sucker, or stupid for believing in you when you talk shit about yourself.”
    And I was like, “Nooo! Keep cheering for me! I need your support!” And I started to stop believing I sucked at life. Yay for competent adulthood!

  3. So true, and so well put. I think women are especially prone to this, and it drives me crazy.

    And why would I prioritise bathroom cleaning when I have one and a half seasons of Parks and Rec to catch up on? HELLO. THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT OF ADULTHOOD.

  4. I have been late to work twice this week because I couldn’t find my keys and leave the house on time. I do feel like this makes me a disastrous failure at life, but I also just moved and once I get in the rhythm of things and we decide where to keep our keys and avalanches of boxes don’t fall on everything, well, it probably won’t happen as much.

    But I try cases and do lawyer stuff all day long. I just bought a house and a brand new bicycle, which I successfully ride without falling over almost every day.

    My parents never cleaned the bathroom. I don’t think I ever saw them do it. They outsourced that crap, and the rest of it, if they didn’t want to do it, they didn’t do it. They’re going to South Africa for three weeks, then London, then Hawaii, and ending the year in Curacao. My goal is to be that good at life by the time I’m 60.

  5. I think part of it is also if you admit you do have your ish together, people tend to shoot daggers at you. It’s braggy or smug or you’re obviously a person of privilege with no perspective on how much life sucks for everyone. GOSH. Did the shitty economy do this to us? I find myself hiding the good stuff that happens to me. It’s easier to talk about the bad stuff, the stuff I suck at, like how my house is always a mess.

  6. Is this why I’ve always felt so old? Because, while I sometimes feel like a failure at individual things or aspects of my life, I have always felt generally capable and, at times, really fucking good at stuff?

    Alternately, I agree with Kayce’s suggestion–if this is a Thing in our generation, I blame the economy. It’s hard to feel like you succeeded in life when you can’t do better than your parents. Not sure where an unclean apartment falls in all this.

    • That’s something I didn’t think about when writing this. The point about doing better than your parents is key. My friend was talking the other day about how hard it is to feel successful when you compare yourself to where your parents were at your age. Like: “By 33, my dad was a vice president! My parents had a house and 2 cars and 3 kids and a dog! Whereas at 33, many of us are…still trying desperately to make enough to pay off our college loans?”

  7. Hmmmm. This might be one of those times where my mental illness hamstraps me. I know I do this a lot, but I really believe it, and some areas of my life are objectively a mess. I’m trying to get better but things like working regularly and exercising much at all are still beyond me.

    I know there are things I do well, but in the grand scheme of things I don’t cope well at all, so this ‘game’ is something I’m kind of hardwired to play. I AM getting better – I know that – but my life really is a mess.

    For what it’s worth, when other people I love do this it makes me really sad and a little angry – they’re so together! Grass is greener, etc.

  8. I one million percent agree with this. The number of times recently I’ve thrown myself onto the ground and declared that my life is in shambles is absurd. I’ve gotta remind myself that sometimes getting out of bed in the morning is a big accomplishment and that my life isn’t falling apart because I prioritised going to a gin party over vacuuming.

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