Friday, February 25, 2011

For All You Perfectionists

"My imperfections and failures are as much a blessing from God as my successes and my talents, and I lay them both at His feet." -Mahatma Gandhi

Wow. When I read those words a few days ago, they stopped me in my tracks. I've been chewing them over ever since, but am still not quite sure what they mean to me.

First, do I believe that to be true? Are my imperfections and failures as much a blessing from God as my successes and talents?

Perfectionism is one of my imperfections. I'm not trying to be cute, it's just true. By perfectionism I mean the tendency to want something to be so good (perfect) that either 1) it will never be finished, 2) it will never live up to my unrealistic standards or 3) I will never begin it in the first place, knowing that it will never be good enough.

Is this a blessing from God? Well, having high standards does motivate me to work hard. I do reach for fairly high goals. I can relate when people share about being overwhelmed or stuck or unable to finish something, thereby making me more compassionate. Those seem to be blessings.

Another of my imperfections is a compulsive need to figure everything out. Exhibit A is this post, right here. Can't I trust Gandhi that this is true? No, I need to test it, probe it, take it apart. This can be a blessing--a healthy skepticism is an asset in many ways. So is questioning, which leads me to new understanding, to larger truths sometimes.

Failures have certainly been blessings from God. I was devastated--rather--my ego was devastated when I was not accepted to University of Pennsylvania's law school. Yet, now I see that I ended up exactly where I needed to be.

I love the idea of laying all of it at God's feet. There is only so much my limited brain, with my limited worldview can understand. I do believe that there is a sentient being out there, something greater than myself, who understands why things happen. I am not that being. But if I believe in its existence, which I do, then I can work on trusting that my imperfections and failures are a part of some larger plan. Which doesn't mean I can't work on them or try to improve, but for me, it means trying to love myself, just as I am in this moment. Maybe one of my vexing imperfections is doing someone a lot of good. Maybe like my doggie's googly eye, my imperfect nose is part of why others love me. Who likes someone who seems perfect? (Not me, another imperfection.)

The crazy thing about perfectionism is that by definition, human beings are flawed. No one is perfect. Never has been, never will be. So why should I think myself any different? (Giant ego, another imperfection.)

A quote that has helped with my perfectionism lately is this one by Emerson:

"Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."

I love his certainty that some blunders and absurdities crept in. Yes! Ralph! How did you know? And his use of the word nonsense. It's much gentler than the words I can use with myself. Most of all, I love his idea that I have a choice. I can choose high spirits over the nonsense. What a hopeful and empowering thought.

Let's have an imperfection party. Who's got one to celebrate?

Monday, February 14, 2011

My Funny Valentine

I’ve been a bit grumpy lately—maybe the hormones, maybe trying to do too much, maybe not writing enough—possibly all three. But I had a reality check this morning when I thought of a dear friend of mine who is heartbroken at the moment. Then I heard another friend in my head saying, “Celebrate your life.” I love that expression, because it reminds me to practice gratitude, taking my focus from what I don’t have, and redirecting it to one of my many blessings.

Which brings me to my Valentine. I suffered through many Valentine’s Days, either lonely or heartbroken, so today I’d like to celebrate the great love I have with my husband, Carl.

I remember thinking, shortly after I met Carl, that I hoped he would always be a part of my life. We were just friends then—it took us almost a year to figure out we were in love—but I liked him at first sight, immensely, and as I knew him better, my affection, respect and admiration for him continued to grow. He made me laugh harder and more often than anyone else I’d known—no small feat, given how hilarious my friends are—and he had a giant heart, filled with kindness. We were babies when we met, all of 22 years old, but I already knew how some friends stayed in your life, while others were just temporary. I really hoped Carl would be one of the few permanent ones.

So I married him.

And I can honestly say, I have more respect, admiration and love for him today than I did 12 years ago. He is still the funniest person I know, and one of the kindest. He’s loyal, honest, hardworking, and thoughtful. He’s forgiving, accepting of my shortcomings, and generous. Without him, I wouldn’t have had the courage to really pursue writing. His belief in my talent, his support of my dreams, his willingness to follow me into uncharted waters, well. It’s more than I ever would have asked for.

So for those of you in romantic relationships, I invite you to celebrate your loved one today. Not because Hallmark tells us to, but because I bet you don’t do it enough. I know I don’t. And for those of you for whom Valentine’s Day is hard, celebrate what is working in your life today. I know if you look, you’ll find something.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Ignorance is Bliss?

I loved The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini’s first book. I know people had beef with some of the coincidences in the plot, but for me, I loved that Hosseini brought Afghanistan to life for me, in a way the news never had. I loved living in Kabul, before the wars. I loved the themes of treachery, forgiveness and redemption. I thought it was beautifully rendered, moving, hopeful.

I approached his follow-up book, One Thousand Splendid Suns, with some trepidation. After I had read the first half, I realized why. The characters’ lives were so grim, so relentlessly horrible, that I wanted to put it down. I really did. It colored my weekend, which was already rainy, even more gray. But I was too invested. I wanted to see what would happen. So I give Hosseini credit for that. And also, for once again, bringing Afghanistan to life. The war, the poverty, hunger, violence, the complete powerlessness of women—they became very real to me as I read the book. And God bless him for writing it. I can imagine the burning need he must have had, to give voice to the women of his country who suffered so greatly.

But…it was hard to take. There was hope at the end, thank God, but if I’m being honest, I really don’t want to spend my time living in such horror. I think works like that are important. I’m sure there are people in the world who don’t know such atrocities exist. I hope people read that book and felt moved to do something for others, be it refugees, victims of domestic violence, or someone in their family. But in the years I worked with refugees, I heard enough gruesome stories to last a lifetime. People told me things so terrible, I would sit in awe, amazed that the person who survived them was sitting in my office, drawing breath.

My clients’ stories inspired me. Seeing the resilience of human beings, of what people can endure, and come through gave me faith that I too, could endure hardship should it appear. But they also exacted a price. I couldn’t hear the stories without taking the details into my very vivid imagination and living with them.

It’s not that I want to be unaware of what’s happening in the world, it’s that I don’t want to be so paralyzed by sadness, so overwhelmed with horror, that I do nothing. For similar reasons I limit my intake of news, which is rarely anything but doom and gloom, and I avoid books like One Thousand Splendid Suns. Because by spending time in that world, I don’t feel inspired, I don’t feel empowered, I feel borderline despondent. And I don’t see how that helps anyone.

Is that willful ignorance? Maybe. But I guess I fail to see how me having a sad weekend will do anything to help people like the characters in the book. So, I’m glad it was written, I’m glad people read it, I hope it did some good in the world, but for me, I’d rather have spent the weekend laughing with Bridget Jones.