Decisions need to be made. Plans need to be finalized. Confirmations need to be, well, confirmed. My own life is hard enough to coordinate and plan let alone the lives of my two children. And there is, of course, a career to attend, students who count on me, a house to upkeep… you get the picture. Future plans befuddle me when I have barely a handle on the here and now. So I defer those moments and sit down to write.
I realize that it would be easy enough to blame my overwhelm on modern motherhood or single-parenthood or simply the state of modern American culture. All of this is true. These realities surely play a determinant role in my levels of stress as I run the daily race against the clock of our lives. But I suspect that if we looked at what goes on underneath the exterior that we might be able to discern a heavy dose of perfectionism in my life that trips me up.
Perfectionism comes in many forms: trying to get things “right”—whatever that means—for my children; attempting to perfectly match time and money with desires; seeking to find that elusive balance self-care, career ambition, and family happiness. Plans are hard for me to make because I am burdened with a slew of preconceptions about a “right” choice. The perfectionist in me is never quite satisfied, and all I need is a less than happy child or trip itinerary that doesn’t work as planned to bring out a brutal self-critique. It is the self-critique that buries me in an avalanche of doubts that makes it hard climb out and evaluate the next series of choices. Perfectionism, contrary to popular belief, is not a quest for the best. It is the endless struggle to avoid negative outcomes by, ironically, energizing one’s own negativity. Wed perfectionism to chronic and impossible cultural expectations for mothers and you have the unhappy marriage of perpetual deficit.
All of this came to mind last night as I devoured another chapter of a book by Kristin Kimball. It was the edgy title– The Dirty Life—that made me give it a second look at the book store. Kristin hints at a life of hot, steamy sex with a sensual, unusual man who courts her with succulent dishes of meats, cheeses, and vegetables that he has grown, harvested, and produced. The dirt that she refers to in her dirty life is linked to the farmer or, more accurately, the farm that they ultimately cultivate together. This is a story of a committed urbanite with a love of great food who falls in love with a man and an entire way of life. It is a dirty life—filled with cows and crops and a composting toilet (you have to read the book).
What I found relevant for my life is an exchange between Kristin and her beloved about success and failure. They are at the very early stages of their relationship and their farming project. They have a farm that is beyond dilapidated with little capital. They have next to no one who believes that they can realize their vision for an organic, sustainable, low-tech farm. What they have is a vision or, I should say, his vision. Bombarded by constant negativity from family, friends, and outsiders, she has moments when she questions whether his open, receptive cast of mind might possibly be a form of insanity. The enormity of it all creates stresses and strains and overwhelms her.
Kirsten regularly turns to her partner in need of reassurance that the project has some chance of success. His answer is, of course, they had a chance. But, more importantly, it didn’t matter if they failed. In his world view, they were already a success because they had tried something very hard and believed in the core values behind the project. “You don’t measure things like that,” he explained,”with words like success or failure.” It was a vision whereby satisfaction came from trying something difficult and then going on to the next challenge, regardless of the outcome. “What mattered,” she later elaborated, “was whether or not you were moving in a direction your thought was right.”
Moving in a direction that you thought was right …I found this idea liberating. Perhaps what mattered was the process of making choices or plans or efforts that were keeping with cherished core values? Perhaps what mattered was a receptive cast of mind that opened to the possibility of what is rather than what might be or could be or should be? Process mattered much more than some elusive notion of progress. It was possible to welcome room for change along the way, change that would come from experience. What mattered was not the pursuit of the, singular right direction but of a direction that you thought was right.
Kirsten admits that this world view sounded extremely fishy to her. As a former ambitious, over-worked New York journalist, she had accepted a paradigm of success and failure where much of the balance sheet was taken up with measures of wealth and external markers of accumulation whether on the resume or the 401K balance sheet. It was a model that emphasized results over process. It certainly was not a model that encouraged risks or innovations or living outside of a narrow set of norms (although, no doubt, the hipster crowd she hung with would have seen themselves as rebels). Her success had made her afraid. Perfect outcomes, as defined by a narrow version of success, had left her paralyzed.
Me too. I may not be ready to buy the farm, but I am ready to liberate myself from that fear-inducing paradigm for success.