The Myth of the “Better Man”
There comes a time in our lives when we reflect on our past, and wonder how differently we could be living at this moment if we had taken different paths. Especially in terms of interpersonal relationships. We look back on our friends and lovers, people we once held so near and dear, and we wonder if we could have kept them in our lives. “Maybe, if I could’ve been a better man, things would be okay today.”
But here’s a thought to consider. Maybe the “better man” does not exist. Perhaps the “better man” can never exist.
I’m often accused of having a rather fatalistic point of view, and I can most definitely understand this accusation. To dare saying that the “better man” may not exist seems quite terminal. This is the end, no change, no improvement. It seems to be the sort of thinking that encourages a person to raise their hands in defeat. What’s the point of anything if I can’t grow and change?
This, however, is what makes the thought terminal. We assume that when life goes awry, it’s somehow a fault of our own. Our ego – the need to be the center of our own little universes – blinds us to another very valid possibility: it has nothing to do with us. We can allow ourselves to satisfy our ego and be the center of our universe – indeed, we are – but we cannot let ourselves forget that we are just the center. We fall into the trap of thinking that this is a place of great power and responsibility (therefore, potential blame), but the fact of the matter is that the universe itself still exists all around us. It can influence us, but we honestly do very little to influence it, because the center of the universe is not a seat of power… it’s nothing more than a point in space and time. The center of the universe is pretty fucking Zen.
When I say there is no such thing as the “better man”, this is the train of thought on which I am working. When something falls apart, do I really deserve to shoulder all the blame? When someone doesn’t like the way I am, is it my duty to change for them? These are questions I struggled to fully understand throughout the entirety of my last romantic relationship. I rather thought the answers were quite simple: Yes and Yes. Surely, there is this person I love, who embodies everything I desire. If I want to receive his love, I should be all that he desires. And so I did… or at least, I tried. This was a very important thing that our happiness seemed to hinge on. If I could be who and what he wanted, there was little conflict. Therefore, when there was regular and intense conflict, I knew it was pretty much down to my inability to remain in-character. I failed to please, therefore, it was my responsibility to make it up to him. I would promise him constantly that I would change. That I could be better. That I had been getting better, so I knew I could keep doing it for him.
It never occured to me that all I was was already plenty good enough. If not for him, then maybe for someone else. And if not for anyone else, it could at the very least be good enough for me. I didn’t need to be a better person. I needed a better situation (and, in all honesty, so did he). Although it was hard to write-off all those years of emotional investment, the wisest choice we ever made in our relationship was not to have one. Neither of us could change the core of who we were for the other, and neither of us should have had to feel the pressure to do so in the first place.
It was at this point that I realized that for me, there was no “better man”. I was all that I was, and to be any different would to not be who I am. To try and reach this unattainable goal was to surrender my truest identity. This does not mean I do not grow and change. I very well do, as do all people. What it means is that I no longer see my place in the center-of-my-universe as something fixed. My universe is always changing… growing and shrinking during any given life season, with some systems moving closer to me, and other systems fading further into the distance. My universe is not a sequence of events from Choice-A to Choice-Q: It is something dynamic. It is not a string of consequences, but a web of opportunity.
Failure is not my sole fault, and not my sole responsibility to correct. Failure is my chance to observe and determine if the situation was poorly fitted to me, rather than vice versa. Which is why I left my old college. And why I left my old job. These were situations that would not have improved, no matter how hard I tried to shape myself into the perfect fit. It wasn’t down to me to make myself a better Wildcat, or a better Quiznos employee. It was down to me to find the better University and the better job. And, in the terms of my former relationship, it wasn’t down to me to be a better girlfriend. It was down to me to find the better relationship. It was not time to change myself, but reach out into my universe and find a better situation.
And I do believe this is something universal. I am not the only one who felt the desperate need to be “better” for other people. I know many people in my life who fit this same, tired, self-sacrificing behaviour pattern; people who see a poor fit as being a personal flaw in their character, rather than a flaw of the situation in which they are desperately trying to fit. These behaviours will always exist as long as the myth of the “better man” exists. They will continue to claim faults which they do not have the rights to own. And in doing so, they not only make themselves suffer, but force all the people in the situation to suffer as well… whether it be at work, in class, a couple-relationship, or a small-family relationship… the myth of the “better man” is toxic to those for whom a person wishes to improve. The ‘selfless’ act of shouldering unnecessary blame becomes an incredibly selfish act of forcing unnecessary consequences on everyone around them.
Sometimes, the most responsible thing one can do is free themselves of that illusion of personal responsibility. The most responsible thing to do is look selfish and bow out of a bad situation, because that is, in fact, the most selfless thing one can do. Be selfish and say to yourself, “I am not what needs to change”, and open your eyes to the universe around you. Your better opportunities are out there. Find them, and let them in.