I love lists. Like Oprah-loving-bread levels of love. Playlists, to-do lists, favorites lists: if there’s a way to list, I list. And it usually has nothing to do with productivity (I mean, I have a grocery list on my phone that I never once glance at once I’m in the store). But for some reason, listing itself is fun. In other news, I’m a total nerd.
But honestly. I love Q&As. I love Top Tens. I love getting to categorize and organize my thoughts (of which there are many). My notes app is full of lists–things I want, books to read, songs to remember, dog names I like. On Spotify, I make playlists like it’s a part-time job. Playlists for every mood, every season, every event, every weird genre I suddenly find myself entranced by. And I journal (obsessively).
Enter my favorite book of the year.
It’s a series of prompts, one per week for a year. Divided by the four seasons in semi-thematic ways, it includes–wait for it–52 lists (very on the nose, I know) meant to be completed in succession.
I love it. It’s beautiful. And it’s nice to know that I’ll have such a curated collection highlighting my 2016 zeitgeist. I like being made aware of my current state since the underlying pulse is always things will change. This isn’t forever: how I’m feeling right now, what I’m liking right now, what I want right now…it won’t always be true. We change, life changes, people change. And you know what really helps capture that?
So usually it’s pretty easy for me to write something up. But this week’s prompt was “List the people you most want to be like.” Even as a list person, it was somehow difficult to do. I couldn’t fill the page. And I didn’t know why. I mean, five, ten years ago, I could have rattled off a long list of heroes and heroines. But somehow, suddenly it was hard for me to list people–entire people–I wanted to be like. And it all comes back to the same reason I like making lists: people change.
People aren’t perfect, life is never perfect, and people are fallible. It’s what makes us interesting–the nuances, the complexities, the layers. We are all onions, parfaits, whatever it is you like. But we have layers that change and fade and grow as we go through this thing called life. The truth is…a lot of good people do bad things; a lot of bad people do good things. Characteristics, I think, are always worth emulating but people are a little more complicated.
During my homeschool years, my family was part of a group based on the classical education of Thomas Jefferson. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ The love for that founding father was consuming. I grew up thinking he was a perfect man, someone inspired by a higher power to do great things. I was taught to consider him the ultimate example, someone to aspire towards. And in many ways he was. Or is. But when confronted with the ugly side of his story–slavery, the affairs, illegitimate children–it was always deny, deny, deny. I refused to believe that someone I wanted to be like could be imperfect, that someone who did so much good could have so many flaws. Because then what’s the point? Why try to be someone who wasn’t always worth being like? But idolization like that can detract from the reality that we are all complex, we are all imperfect, and that’s always part of the story. There’s room to remember the bad times, the least desirable characteristics, the things that make you think less of a person.
As a kid, I was obsessed with George Washington and William Shakespeare. To me they were inspired, inspiring heroes. Now I think they were talented guys with some good traits and some bad traits, some secrets and some pretense. We don’t only need to value, recognize, or celebrate the good a person does to find them worthwhile. It’s interesting to consider the antiheroes of the world, to wonder at the traits the vilified share with the revered. In the end, a person is interesting exactly because of the individuality at play. So why should we want to be like someone when you only have this one chance to be yourself?
I went there, I know. It’s as cheesy as a Dr. Seuss rhyme. But, honestly, we only get one opportunity to be ourselves. So it’s hard to think of people I’d like to mimic. I can make list after list of characteristics I hope to have, things I want to achieve. But ask me to list PEOPLE I want to be and I’m suddenly thinking…why? If everyone was trying to be like Gandhi, we wouldn’t have Mother Teresa, JK Rowling, Coco Chanel. The world would be–no offense to Gandhi–rather boring. And the memory of Gandhi would be diluted to only the good he’s done, the memorable moments he’s had. He would become a caricature, a person stripped down to simplistic measurements so that people could attain a similar status. So that people could be like him.
And I know that’s extreme. I promise I don’t think there’s anything wrong with heroes and idols and I know it’s entirely possible to fill out a list of people you want to be like while still being completely yourself. I have traits I admire, moments that impress me, decisions I respect. But I want to believe I can be something good without being like someone in particular.
We’re all human, right? And that means at some point in this short life we will definitely do something that sucks. We will be bad and we will be flawed and we will be something someone shouldn’t want to be. But chances are we will also be good and we can be something someone could admire. That’s life. In some ways, I don’t want to be like Thomas Jefferson and in others I do. From Kim Kardashian to Kanye West, Emma Watson to Emma Stone, a lot of people I like are people that make it complicated to say I want to be like them. Because which part? It’s silly to parse out pieces and decide that since so-and-so did this then that makes him or her worth emulating or ignoring. I’d rather know the whole story, see the whole picture. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
And I guess that’s where I got hung up. List lover that I am, I didn’t want to write a list glorifying people in a way that waters down their entire existence to one bullet point of heroism. Because John Smith might not be the man he was in Pocahontas, and Christopher Columbus was definitely a dick; Martin Luther wasn’t perfect and MLK Jr. definitely had his flaws; Taylor Swift is my favorite but she’s not who I want to be. I am mesmerized by people’s stories, impressed by their impact, intrigued by the complications. But I think I’d rather just attempt to make me into something interesting, someone where the good and the bad and the messy and the impressive are all worth remembering. I don’t want to be a bullet point, a name recited to look educated or interesting; I don’t want to be one act or one choice or one event, good or bad; I don’t want to be whittled down to a part of the whole, a piece of truth in a muddled realm of complications; I don’t want to be a figure or a figment used to prove a point–I want to be me. Not my attempt at being like someone else, living like someone else.
And maybe I take this list thing too seriously. After all, it’s just a clever way to ask who I look up to. But I don’t want to make a list of heroes and admirees, people meant to be purely inspirational. People are messy. I can be too. But the person I most want to be like? Uh, me plz. I’ve been told nobody can do it better.