I was 19 years old and walking from my London apartment on Gunterstone Road to Hyde Park. It was a sunny Saturday, there were many people on Kensington High Street. I had finished high school, was working at a publishing company during my gap year, and that day, walking along and thinking about how I wanted my future life to be (yes, even back then I was a personal-development geek). Living in a big city like London was something new to me. After growing up in a small suburb in South Africa, London was different. Very different.
In trying to make sense of these differences, I remember being concerned that the lowest common denominator seemed to win out in many city planning decisions. Looking around me I’d notice that the city didn’t work perfectly. Lights weren’t perfectly synchronised. Sometimes trains ran late. It seemed to me like things could be better, but good enough sufficed.
I’d grown up with the idea that “the UK was first-world and therefore got everything right, South Africa was third world and was imperfect”. This magical far off country wasn’t struggling with the violence, poverty and racial divide of South Africa. This tinted view was serenely delivered to darkest Africa on Sunday evenings via a radio in my father’s woodworking shop. Anthony Lejourn’s London Letter would paint a wistful picture of the perfect life in the “motherland” as my father showed me how to build things from wood.
I was trying to make sense of my relationship with London: why was it that things didn’t work perfectly, especially if this was the perfect city? This was also the stage in my life where I’d put a new girlfriend on a pedestal and admire her perfection until friction exposed imperfection.
Today I can look back at that time and realise that labelling anything perfect, be it the admired girlfriend on the pedestal or the first world city, dooms me to disappointment. There is always a chink in the armour, always the moment when, perfect vanishes never to return. That moment when perfect is closer to really nice. I live in Berlin now. It’s really nice. Certainly not perfect. But right for the moment.
And so to the idea of gratitude: I’m asking myself why I’ve never been a fan of the gratitude. My gut immediately feels like it’s fake. I can see the value, but in the back of my mind there’s been a “yes, but”. The subtext being “Yes you can be grateful for that, but don’t you see this problem” or expanded even more “…but don’t you see the imperfection in that corner”. It’s a heavy load to carry.
And yet this is the same “she’s perfect”, “London’s perfect” thinking that never worked out in the past. The power to be grateful for the really nice or even the imperfect is a very powerful skill and echoes the vibrant positive personalities I see in many of my happiest friends.
Gratitude exercises can feel like checking off a list. Yeah, health, no war, warm clothes, roof above the head. Grateful, grateful, grateful, check check. And now? It sometimes feels like lowering my standards. Like not striving anymore. No more perfection. Here’s your mediocre served under a dry roof. And so we’re back to the perfect becoming the enemy of the really nice. And that didn’t work out so well in the past.
I have much to be grateful for. There are chinks of imperfection. And some chunks of major imperfection.
But my life is good. And should anyone ask, this is me dipping my toe in the gratitude waters:
I’m grateful for the people and memories that have come into my life. And for the moments when I can smile. (Like this photo from back then. Boy I was young! And happy.)