Compensatory Existence

I compensate for my shortcomings. If I can. And it’s not always possible. Sometimes, my shortcomings are so extensive, so overwhelming, that it’s simply impossible to overcome them. It feels like I’m trying to perform an appendectomy on an uncooperative boxer who has not been anesthetized; my arms are tied behind my back, I am blindfolded, the only surgical tools available to me are a cross-cut carpenter’s saw and a rubber mallet, and I have no knowledge of anatomy. No matter how much I try to compensate for my shortcomings, I am attempting the impossible.

Sometimes, I feel my only visible attributes are my shortcomings. I could unroll a ten-thousand-foot-long scroll, listing my shortcomings single-spaced in ten-point type and I would need another two scrolls to finish the list. Just compiling the list seems an insurmountable task.

I realize, of course, it’s unhealthy to focus one’s attention on the negative aspects of one’s personality—one’s presence on the planet. Attempting to catalog one’s failings is akin to counting the number of buds that never completed their journey to becoming flowers. There’s no good purpose for the undertaking and it can only lead to a depressing conclusion. Yet there it is. The wheels of the cart get stuck in a deep, petrified rut and stay there until someone comes along with a horse or a tractor and physically drags the cart out of the track. Or shows up with a crosscut saw and a mallet, ignoring the wheels of the cart and eyeing my leg.

Ideally, one identifies one’s shortcomings, develops a plan to overcome them, and sets about the task of becoming a better person. But at what point do we begin from an ideal perspective? Virtually never, I would suggest. Yet, still, we must use the tools available to us and strike out on the journey toward self-improvement. I envision a future me whose failings are visible only in a retrospective autobiography; a book written by a man molded by the sheer force of will and hard work into an admirable human being. The book begins years ago, before his intentional rebirth, in the thousands of pages of self-exploration and stream-of-consciousness expressions that reveal the scope of the required rehabilitation. It continues through a period I’ll call now, through an era of a thousand better tomorrows. All condensed, of course, into a succinct, gripping tale of restoration and renewal.

Books are metaphors for life and all the struggles life entails. They are messy entanglements that, in spite of their chaotic bursts of pain and ecstasy and and sadness and joy, represent the arithmetic mean of our existence. But not always, of course.

Consider the guy who can’t hammer a nail, no matter how much he tries to master the task. He might compensates by perfecting his ability to smoke the near-perfect brisket. Or the woman who can’t carry a note. Her compensatory expression might be creation of sculpture of unparalleled beauty. Or the man who can’t hard-boil an egg; his ability to make children laugh and forget their disappointments compensates for his culinary failures.

Do we consciously compensate, or do we simply stumble into correcting natural failures with natural successes? Sometimes, I know, we compensate for our shortcomings by investing time and energy and discipline in turning them into strengths. The bumbling handyman may, over time, become a finish carpenter—an artist in wood. The howling songstress might evolve into a sensational soprano. It’s all possible. None of it is predetermined. We are who we wish to be, within the context of our desire and the available trappings of change we choose to use.

In a nutshell, we adjust and adapt. We compensate for our shortcomings to the extent that we engage our desire, marry it to our environment, and fashion change from scraps of possibility. My book is only partly written. I will finish it during the course of the months and years to come. I’ll complete it before I complete my life. And that’s the way it should be. I’ll compensate, and that’s enough to make for a happy ending. Many years hence, I hope.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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