Thursday, November 10, 2005

You Need Do Nothing

"Having my parents here after not seeing them for five years has been wonderful. And challenging," her voice was faux upbeat. Underneath the bubbles, there was a current of pain and exhaustion, which communicated itself over the phone line.

Shelly was the type pf person who would never tell you when something was wrong. Tiny, birdlike and piquant, I met her at a poetry reading. We were strangers and yet, when I saw her, in her tights and baseball cap (she has just been for a run) there was this blue streak of recognition. I had never met her, but I knew instinctively that I knew her. It was like meeting a member of your tribe, those rare individuals that you resonate with almost instantly, and wonder why that is so. I overheard her tell someone she was a "practising idealist" and was intrigued. Who was this woman?

I was struggling through a carrot cake with walnut icing, and when she sat at my table, I grinned and asked her if she would like to have some. To my surprise, she accepted willingly, so there we were, two strangers, working our way through cake. And that is how we became friends.

As a practising idealist Shelly always sounded positive. I took this at face value and imagined her life to be all sorted out. How far from my own.

Today, however, it was clear something was wrong. Her parents had been visiting and it was the first time she was seeing them in five years. She had been so excited to have them over and I simply assumed that everything had gone swimmingly. Silly me. Five years is a long time and people change while expecting everyone else to remain the same.

Slowly, she let a little of the story unfurl. How he father, angry at the way a conversation was going, jumped out of their moving car. How her mother looking around critically, asked why there were no young men in gunsight: "You're not getting any younger, honey. Your little sister is married. Why do you have to be so picky?" How they both hated Australia, because if was different from America. Because their daughter had given them up for it. Or so they thought.

As is her wont, Shelly bent over backwards, trying to please them, while struggling to retain her own identity. Now, as they were packing and she was getting ready to take them to the airport, she was feeling shattered. The way she used to feel after being on call for 78 hours back in the day when she was a surgeon, and hard work, almost her religion.

"I tried so hard, you know," she sounded broken.

"I know." I hadn't known her for long, but I could already see what a perfectionist she was. "Maybe you don't need to try so hard. Maybe it's OK to just be."

"Oh dear. I try too hard." she sighed and I could feel the sheer weight of her thoughts. Another imperfection to work on.

"Hold on, let me read you something. I got this from a Dan Joseph ( newsletter and I think you will be able to identify.":

Perfectionism is a socially approved trap. It may sound reasonable to "always aim for the best" to "never settle for second place" and so on. But in the end, perfectionism is a hopeless game. It is like endlessly chasing a carrot on a stick.

On the deepest level, you could say that perfectionism is a futile search for self-worth. "If I do this one thing better," perfectionists say to themselves, "then I’ll be worthy. Then I’ll be a good person, and people will like me. I just have be better than I am."

It’s quite tempting to pursue that goal – after all, what a reward! Do this perfectly, and you’re granted worth, acceptance, and love. Just do it perfectly. But of course, the brass ring always stays just out of reach. Tempting, calling – but out of reach.

So what’s the alternative to perfectionism? Some people say, "I’d rather be perfectionistic than lazy and apathetic." But those aren’t the only choices. In fact, the true answer to perfectionism lies at the heart of many spiritual teachings.

"You are a child of God. Nothing can change this. And because you are a child of God, you are perfectly loved, perfectly forgiven, and spiritually perfect forever. Accept that truth about yourself and others."

This attitude, of course, is the opposite of perfectionism. Perfectionists say, "I’m not perfect – far from it. But perhaps if I work harder, or do this better, or improve myself in this way, I have a chance to redeem myself. I just have to try harder."

Again, the spiritual teachings respond by saying, "It’s impossible to ‘make’ yourself perfect. Don’t even try. Instead, be willing to reach deep down into your heart, and into the hearts of others – into your spiritual core. There you’ll find the perfection that you’re seeking."

Lofty ideas! And sometimes hard to accept. For these ideas begin to dismantle the whole thought system of the human ego – the thought system that says, "I can earn my worth. I can acquire love. I can make myself acceptable." The spiritual teachings say, "No – worth, love and acceptance are yours not by your efforts, but by the grace of God. You need do nothing but accept them."

There was silence at the other end of the line. I think I could hear stifled sobs. It was a release.

And all I want to say is, you're beautiful as you are Shel. You're already perfect. So relax.

You need do nothing.


~Lil Nance ;> said...

Wow, did I ever need to hear that today!! You must have read my mind!!
BTW- THANX Soooo much for the priceless post on my blog!!

Jenn said...

Hi Nance. It was a departure from my usual bitter, cynical diatribes, but I felt it was worth it. I suffer from this as much as the next person, which is why I have become expert at recognising it in other people. Haha. You're welcome for the post. Hope things are going better for you on that front.

Andy said...

Jenn wrote: It was like meeting a member of your tribe, those rare individuals that you resonate with almost instantly, and wonder why that is so.

That's a beautiful way of putting it. I've never heard it expressed so well. Job well done on this post.

Jenn said...

Thank you Andy. And thanks for visiting.

lemontree said...

at the risk of repeating what someone else has already said:
"meeting a member of your tribe"
and "practicing idealist" both very powerful and very well worded concepts
first time here- loved your writings!

Jenn said...

Gee thanks lemontree. And welcome.