Ahh… the Illusion of Perfection. So illusory (and elusive) that people actually believe they can not only obtain perfection, but that it might matter.
I have long been called a perfectionist, by myself and others I suspect. My grade school teachers noted it in the way that I worked (or quit working) when something did not come out exactly right on the first attempt. For a long time in my professional life I was convinced, categorically that if I made a misstep in any way shape or form, all would be lost. While there are a lot of advantages (professionally) to this mindset, it does little for sanity, relationships, or general well-being.
And if all is lost, then what do you do? Really? What do you do?
If you are me you spend a lot of time kicking your own ass. This is a drag. In every way imaginable.
For some time now I have been really trying to work out what really does matter. You hear the cliché all them time that on one’s death bed one will not think back on all the work that they did not do, or the worrying that they did not do…
I think (as with many clichés) this may be the real answer.
Could it be that simple?
On April 15, 2012 something happened that has since shaped much of my attitudes about what really might matter. While this was a catalyst for me in some ways, it was something I had been grappling with for much longer. But a catastrophic event can do this to a person… send them further and faster on a train of thought. After April 15 I started thinking about how it might not be the end of the world if I did not grade 120 papers on the exact day I got them. I started to think that in some ways my inability to present perfectly comprehensive and amazing lessons everyday might be acceptable. I thought I might not wash those dishes right then, I might go to bed and let someone rub my head. I looked around and thought, it just might be okay to do nothing for a minute.
In many ways, my present working environment has contributed a great deal to my ability to see that, while perfection may be a worthy goal, it is not a required outcome in order to achieve really amazing, important, valid things. I am working these days with the most creative, flexible, dynamic groups of people I have ever worked with. Without being patronizing or pandering in any way, these folks have a really solid grip on appropriate priorities for the tasks we have at hand. Consequently, they also have a really clear understanding of how to make sure the pursuit of perfection can coexist with the pursuit of happiness (or at the very least satisfaction.)
I can’t really express how grateful I have been for this – especially recently as I grapple with intense grieving for inexplicable losses, true instability as a teacher working in a public school under the painful thumb of state budgets, insane student behavior as spring approaches and I again find myself at the helm of a group of seniors who do not know how to deal with all the emotions associated with the impending transition that high school graduation brings them whether or not they are ready for it.
When I think about all these things – and all the other shit that is strewn across the world and the human race: genocide, poverty, domestic violence, failing economies, war, the mass marketing of fear, global warming, endangered species, racism – suddenly I get a whole new view of what matters. And what does not matter.
What matters? Spending time with the people who enrich your life, whenever you can. Doing things that energize and recharge you. Minding the three gatekeepers of the mouth: The first gatekeeper asks “Is it true?” The second gatekeeper asks “Is it kind? For those who qualify for the first two, there is a final question. The third gatekeeper asks “Is it necessary?”
And what does not matter? Internet trolls, and angry little men in general. A student who is righteously indignant that I took a page out of Mr. Hand’s book and did not allow him to come late to my class with food. A stack of ungraded papers. Handouts stapled imperfectly.
Tonight I will go to the gym and be punished by my trainer and love it. Then I will walk home and cook dinner for the really kind person who came to meet me just so I didn’t have to walk alone. Then I will get to spend time chatting about the things that matter with someone who matters. I will probably do some work to prepare for tomorrow. I will manage any crises I need to, including cleaning the cat box. And I will sleep well. Grateful for the opportunity to do all these things whether I like them or not, for another day.
All is not. lost.