I guess "Perfection" does have a zipcode. Perfection, North Carolina. Photo by Wessel Kok
myth·i·cize (mith´i-siz´), v.t. [MYTHICIZED (-sizd´), MYTHICIZING], to make into, or explain as, a myth.
myth (mith), n. [LL. mythos; Gr. mythos, a word, speech, story, legend], 1. a traditional story of unknown authorship, ostensibly with a historical basis, but serving usually to explain some phenomenon of nature, the origin of man, or the customs, institutions, religious rites, etc. of a people: myths usually involve the exploits of gods and heroes: cf. legend. 2. such stories collectively; mythology. 3. any fictitious story. 4. any imaginary person or thing spoken of as though existing.
I think it is almost impossible for us to not buy into certain cultural myths. The myth of what is beautiful. The myth that “truth” has one clear-cut meaning. And, of course, the myth of perfection. Much of the time—and much of that time without awareness of it—I live under the myth that I have to be perfect. Somewhere in my head is a stubborn part of me that believes that if I do not take the right steps, if I don’t have every aspect of my life in order, if I do not appear to be always together, the world—or at least my personal world—will crumble.
This is not a new myth in my life. I went to nationals in speech and debate my senior year of high school with an original oratory entitled “The Art of Perfectionism.” Using advertising, psychology, and personal narrative, I crafted a speech, a cautionary tale of shorts, that documented the dangers of trying to be perfect all the time, the dangers of believing that perfection was even possible. When I was a child, I was anchored in doing things right. I tried to be the model child and my desire to please others and to be perceived as strong and smart and creative has continued in my adult self.
I know this myth of perfection is inherently flawed, impossible and ultimately undesirable, and yet I tend to apply that knowledge to everyone but me. Why is it that I am able to be so generous when it comes to other people and their slip-ups and simultaneously be so hard on myself?
I think of a quote from Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird. She writes: “I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that alot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
Beyond not having fun, the problem with buying into the myth of perfection is that it is just that: a myth. It is a story, a legend, a fiction. I am not perfect. No matter how hard I try to juggle all the balls in my day-to-day life, I always end up dropping one. And this week, I was reminded in very visceral and difficult ways that I am not perfect and that I have to let go of the myth and embrace the reality.
Scenario #1 or “The Scenario In Which I Beat The Crap Out Of Myself”
Wednesday. 9:30 a.m. I have just crawled out of bed and am going to get food to feed my dog. It’s April 14, the day before tax day. I have not started my taxes. I have opened my computer to tackle this task, but first I have to feed the dog. I am not quite awake yet as I have not yet made the coffee. On the way into the kitchen, I open a high kitchen cabinet and get out some napkins to blow my nose (as I have been stopped up from allergy season). Leaving the door open, I get my dog some food and put it in a bowl. On any other day, I would have looked up as I exited the kitchen, avoiding the open cabinet by stepping to the right. Or perhaps as I passed it, I would close the cabinet with my free hand, laughing at my absentmindedness. But this is not any other day. This is the day when, with Maggie’s bowl in hand, I walk directly into the cabinet, my forehead hitting the sharp metal clasp that is meant to close the cabinet. I keel over to the floor in pain, still trying to process what just happened. Maggie runs around me, fixated on her food dish, and I yell at her, “Mama’s hurt. How can you be worried about food right now?”
At first, I think I just hit my head really hard, but when I put my hand to my forehead, I feel the blood before I see it. Running into the bathroom, I pull my bangs backed and look at my forehead and see a vertical red line where the skin had broken open. Too deep to be a scratch. Too surface for the emergency room. I grab a soda out of the freezer and put it to my head with a Kleenex to catch the blood. I call my mom and dad to ask for advice. They tell me to check it out. I call some friends, but I only get voicemails.
I decide to go to urgent care. Sitting there, all I can do is chastise myself. Why hadn’t I been more careful? Why hadn’t I closed the cabinet? Why hadn’t I watched where I was going? Why was I such a klutz? I wondered whether I had messed up my face forever. I wondered whether I needed stitches. About a half an hour into my stay, my friend E called. She was just getting done with class and got my message. She was coming to meet me there. I wonder what would have happened if she would have asked what I needed.
What can I do?
Oh, it’s okay, I’m just here waiting.
I’ll be okay by myself.
Well, really, if you don’t mind too much. I mean, it would be kinda cool to have company.
It is so hard to ask for help.
She comes and the doctor puts a strip on the wound to help the skin close. He says I am young and the laceration doesn’t look bad. I still don’t know how it will heal. I don’t know if there will be a mark. I hope there won’t be, or that it will be slight if there is one, but I don’t know. And I have to accept myself regardless. I too have to accept that I am capable of great things and also of accidents, of fuck-ups, of times when I bleed and cry. And I can’t see myself reflected only in the flaw of my bumping into the cabinet or the potential flaw of the wound. I am not my flaws alone.
Scenario #2 or “The Scenario in Which I Run On Empty…Literally”
Friday. 7 p.m. Because of the difficult emotionality of the past few days, I have decided to treat myself to some Dairy Queen. I noticed the other day that I was running low on gas but I forgot about it. I put it on a list of things to do later. On the way back from the DQ, driving down a four-lane street near the university, I think about whether I should stop at the Circle K for gas on the way home. That would probably be a good idea. Then, just a block away from the Circle K, I feel the car begin to shake. The needles are pulsing up and down. The car is sputtering. Please, I think to myself, I only have a block to go. Please, please let me make it to the gas station.
But I don’t make it. I stall in the middle of the street. I put my hazards on and just sit there, beginning to panic. Headlights of other cars brighten as they swerve around me, no doubt pissed that I am in their way. What am I going to do? I can’t move the car by myself. I step out of the car.
I see two college kids walking down the sidewalk.
“Hey, I’m out of gas. Y’all think you could help me out?”
They shrug and tell me “sure.” I don’t know what to do, I tell them. This has never happened to me.
“Put it in neutral.”
We begin to push. With them in the back and I by the driver’s side, I turn the wheel to keep us moving straight. Then another girl and guy come up and ask if we need help.
“You had almost made it,” the girl said, smiling at me.
More quickly than I would have thought possible, the five of us push car to the station. They didn’t needed to help me, but they had. There was something reassuring in that.
I thank them and offer them slushies, offer them a drink, anything. But they wave off my offer, heading back down the street in direction they were headed before.
I fill the tank up all the way, telling myself I will not let it come that close again. Before the light went on, I will fill the tank up. I get in the car, still feeling grateful for help in a bad situation.
In the car, I turn the key. The engine turns over for a minute, then nothing. I try again. Again. I call my mom, on the verge of tears.
“I ruined the engine. I ran out of gas and then filled it up. Now the car won’t start. I ruined the engine.”
“You can’t ruin the engine for being out of gas. Oil, yes. Water, yes. Not gas. Let it fill up the pipes. Wait five minute and try again.”
I wait and the car did start. I move slowly back home.
Two scenarios in which I messed up and had to suffer the consequences. Two scenarios in which I was humbled. And two scenarios in which I had to ask for help. The thing about letting go of the dream of perfection is that we also have to admit that we cannot do everything ourselves. Let me remove the plural pronoun: I cannot do everything by myself. We, and I, need other people. I spend many of my days under the illusion that I have crafted for myself that I can handle all I need to handle on my own. And I am reminded almost every day that this is another fallacy. I cannot handle everything on my own. There is, however, one some trick to getting others to help you… you have to ask for help. My friend E wasn’t going to telepathically sense that I needed her to sit with me in the urgent care office. The students walking may have responded, may have realized I needed help, but they also might have easily walked on by. What I had to do in both of these situations is admit, not only to myself but to other people, that I needed help, that I was not perfect, that I was in a dilemma that I could not get out of on my own.
Mythology and legend often depicts the feats of heroes as we humans attempt to understand the planet we live on and the nature of the human spirit. These stories are useful in some ways. They are creative and exuberant. They depict both the beauty and the imperfections of gods as a way to help us understand our own beautiful and imperfect natures. And these stories, just like the people they feature, are limited. We can mythicize as long as we also understand that myths are only one part of a longer, much more complicated story.
[full disclosure: I considered chucking this whole post and rewriting it because it doesn’t feel totally done and because some of the material here makes me vulnerable. But in the interest of what this post discusses (dispelling the myth of perfection, accepting that I am not perfect), I’m letting the post stand. Thank you for accepting it as is]