By Sally Johnson
Ten years ago, I began writing a book of essays to my children. They were in grade school at the time and I hoped to craft a collection of simple life lessons. It’s an arrogance particular to parenthood that if only we could come up with the right things to say to our kids, then they would listen, make better choices, and avoid the painful mistakes we have made. Even acknowledging this delusion, I thought if I put my thoughts and stories in a bound volume, my kids might at least read them one day.
It took me a long time to sort out what I wanted to say, but the guiding principle was a quote from Spinoza that I try to live by:
Do not weep; Do not wax indignant; Understand
I believed then and now that to seek information and gain understanding is always energy better spent than shedding angry tears.
When I was young, I was a sensitive and anxious kid. I was the kid and young adult who feared hard work and responsibility and felt overwhelmed by life and my own emotions. I avoided pressure at every turn. I was deeply insecure and unable to face the challenges of life. It was only upon becoming a parent in my early 30s and having three young children very close in age, that my avoidance of challenges became unsustainable. I sought help through therapy and other resources, and began building a healthier mindset toward the challenges of life.
Learning to understand my own nature better, turning my intellectual curiosity toward my struggles, became an empowering process of self-improvement. And as my kids grew up, I wanted to explain what I learned about certain facets of life that helped me crawl out of such a challenging place, even as I hoped they would never find themselves there. So I wrote a book of essays highlighting pivotal moments in my journey from isolation to connection, from perfectionism to good enough, and from lying to truth.
Shoot the Arrows: Essays from Mom on Taking an Honest Shot at Life was released on Nov. 1, published under my maiden name, Sally Vardaman. Now this longstanding project is finally out in the world. When given the opportunity to write about this work for HumanistsMN, I felt a little sheepish. This is not a work of political or scientific theory, the kind of books we discuss in humanist circles. It is the voice of a humanist parent, trying to give her children a moral compass and healthy habits for well-being untethered by religion or faith in a deity. It is a book of personal stories rather than the technical arguments we love.
In the early days of writing this volume, my words were flat and trite. As I wrestled with what to say, my children kept growing and changing. They asked tough questions, rendering insufficient the cliched ideas that first inspired this project. (“Mom, what is sin?”) I grew too, and the challenges of parenthood continued to demand that I work to face my personal challenges: insecurities, biases, and an unhealthy reliance on alcohol as a coping mechanism.
A lot of things happened in our world as I wrote. Trump’s presidency, #metoo, COVID and, only three miles from our house, the killing of George Floyd. In the associated public discourse we saw a lot of finger pointing and not enough acceptance of personal responsibility. Flawed humanity was on full display, and we had a lot to talk about in our house.
In these years, terms such as “racist” and “abuser” were used with greater frequency and carried heavier weight, and I definitely celebrated this increased consciousness. There was a great satisfaction in having these labels, but I also felt like they were only discussed in the third person. I had hoped such consciousness would also inspire introspection.
Around that time I heard an interview with the comedian Mike Birbiglia, of whom I am a huge fan. He described a driving belief that informs his work:
“Cleverness is overrated, and heart is underrated. If you’re not telling your secret, you’re not doing anything.”
Birbiglia’s words set a new bar for what I chose to share in these essays, and inspired me to tell stories more revelatory of my failings than I ever imagined sharing. They include stories where I was the liar, the abuser, the racist. Maybe not everyone makes my mistakes, but I doubt the faulty ideas at the heart of my struggles are rare.
I wanted my children to understand how flawed we humans can be, and that honest self-reflection is the cornerstone of growth and self-improvement. Our mistakes do not have to be our destiny. We are capable of growth and change, and our failings do not have to be hard coded into our identities.
Advocating a mindset of personal revision rather than moralism, I tried to tackle difficult truths, inserting humor where I could. These are stories of fault in the first person as antidotes to perfectionism and anxiety. I cling to the freedom that comes from honesty and self-acceptance so I can move on from my failings and not be trapped by my worst inclinations. I hope one day my kids will too.
Note: Sally will give a book reading at 3 p.m. Jan. 6 as part of HMN’s Secular Saturday program. Get more details and RSVP here.
To order Sally’s book, go to sallyvardaman.com. You can also find a contact form there to reach her for direct purchases, book club discussions, or other inquiries. Audiobook forthcoming in 2024.