It wasn’t about learning to love my brother or discovering that compassion was the better route. It was about finding ways to ‘look good’ rather than actually ‘being good’. It involved complicated plots lined with casual laughter and friendly offers, just within earshot of the star-giver. There was strategy to getting noticed without seeming obvious, and it required an expert approach to judge motherly moods and home climate.
The star charts didn’t do the trick to spark sibling camaraderie, which transpired in later years, fluidly shortening the distance as we hiked into adulthood. But they left a lingering influence, a worldview that has me arranging my life while still searching for the star giver. I tend to act within earshot and perform for the gold star, without pausing to recognize that there are no charts held up by magnets on my fridge anymore. I step forward to make them proud and stretch to incorporate star-worthy gestures. I act for your benefit, and search for the right answer, the best choice, the flawless path to win the next star. I forget that I hold the sheets of star stickers in my drawer and that I get to dole them out at my discretion. I forget that there is no tally anymore, no parent looking through the doorway, no greater authority judging my steps as I teeter on life’s balance beam.
It’s a hard leap into adulthood. It’s a sobering moment when you realize that hollow gestures echo and ‘looking good’ is meaningless if no one is watching. Kindness for the sake of recognition becomes see-through and performance smiles radiate fakeness to the empty audience. And yet, why do I still wait for the gold stars? Why do I still look outward for the answers, and search for someone, anyone, to tell me the right way to turn? Why do I act out of imaginary obligation or contort my truth to fit in pretty packages? I’ve outgrown the gold stickers and yet, I still assume there is some master chart with stars awarded and failures registered. I live in anticipation for the final prize, for the day when I earn enough stars, win enough love, and stockpile enough approval. I convince myself that it’s what I really want, that it’s easier to please than deal with the consequences of disappointment. I get lost in semantics until I believe my own rationale: that I owe it to you, that I ‘should’ be better, that I’m not okay yet but once I can master all of my demons, then I’ll finally be good enough.
I realize that good news remains abstract and heartaches weigh heavier when I’m still waiting for the validating nod from any available authority. I realize that if I really want those stickers of approval, I’m going to have to start giving them out myself. I start to learn how to design my own charts and am generous with my rewards. I allot stars for good efforts and risks taken, along with successes and stumbles. I earn stickers when I step out of the edges of life or when I refrain from apologizing for taking up space. I fill pages with stars won for kind intentions and warm wishes, routines that needed stretching and new sites explored. I learn that I was ‘being good’ all along, but it got lost in the manipulations of trying to ‘look good’. I practice rooting my good news in reality and soothe heartaches with puppy kisses. I remember that I have become the star-giver, and get to decide the prize-winning criteria. I remember that I can wait forever for the infinite approval and endless missing stars, or I can whip out my own stickers and plaster them across my forehead.
Maybe there is a right answer and a better choice. Maybe there are perfect daughters and flawless friends. Maybe my brother has a fridge covered with stars and I’m losing the race. Maybe.
Or maybe it’s time to recognize that we become our own star-givers and that I am already good enough today.