Friday, June 21, 2013

The Pitfalls of Perfection

I have a serious dilemma: I want to be perfect. Or at least I want you to think I’m perfect. I’d like to be known as the girl who never says an unkind word, the one who always does the “right” thing. Whether it be paying my taxes, parenting my children, or driving like I really do give a damn about the person in the next car, I’d like for you to believe that I’m the model citizen. And the ridiculous thing is that I probably put less energy in to being a model citizen than I do in making you think I am. It’s all about image management.

I grew up with the Yoda mentality, i.e. “Do or do not. There is no try.” It was that black and white. The unspoken but very real setup was that you either hit the mark or you were a failure. Problem is, the mark constantly changed and there was never any warning or explanation for the shift. I can’t even begin to recount how many times I doubled and redoubled my efforts to avoid a verbal flogging, but I never could be perfect enough to avoid it altogether. The problem, of course, wasn’t my imperfection. All kids are imperfect, and all kids are kids. It was the grownups’ expectations that were off the mark, but when you’re a kid you take your cues on reality from the grownups. I started believing pretty early on that if I made a mistake it meant that I was fatally flawed. And when you’re fatally flawed, people abandon you. For me, that is undoubtedly the crux of the matter.

Trying to be perfect is all kinds of crazy. For starters, it’s impossible. There’s no way any one of us can make a hundred on the life test. We’re going to hurt and disappoint each other, and I think the key is in owning that and making whatever amends are necessary. That’s the high road. But I don’t like to own it; I’d rather hide or make excuses. Why? Well, there’s the yucky ego part, meaning that my pride doesn’t want to bow to anyone else. But the worst of it for me is that it feels like confessing I’m “bad.” I didn’t do something bad, I am bad. And that mindset, according to self-help guru Brene Brown, is the hallmark of shame. I can tell you firsthand that shame sucks. It’s like being boiled in toxic chemicals.

Imagine a paradigm of grace and tolerance, where we all admit that we’re flawed and sometimes do stupid shit. Then we could get on with our lives and look at things more objectively when imperfection rears its ugly head. Unfortunately I think the M.O. on this planet is to pretend that we’re not infected with the universal human ailment, that is, imperfection. We minimize our behavior or actions to the point of becoming smoke-and-mirrors experts. Just call us David Copperfield; we’re all professional illusionists to some degree.

So I’m here to confess that I’m not the most virtuous kid on the block (but then you probably already knew that.) I’ve been known to gossip or lie or betray a confidence. I’ve said hurtful things to others. I’ve let people down. And I can be quite judgmental. But that doesn’t negate what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” I can be very self-sacrificing, kind, compassionate, trustworthy, generous and accepting. And when I do those things, I do them really well. *

Perhaps the problem isn’t that others abandon me when I show my humanity; maybe it’s that I abandon myself. It’s the equivalent of standing on the side of the road and hurling stones at myself as I’m walking by. When I beat myself up for failing or hurting others, or for making a mistake, the self-talk borders on vicious. At its worst it’s self-hatred on steroids. Maybe the most disturbing thing about it all is how cloak-and-dagger the mental brutality can be. Quite often I'm not even aware of the dialogue going on in the background of my mind. So I’m trying to learn how to own my blemishes without self-destructing, how to humbly confess my failures to others without sentencing myself to death row. I don’t know… maybe for some people that’s not so hard. I think if I spent less time trying to control your perception of me, and more time on readjusting my perception of myself, I'd be a lot happier. Unfortunately, that’s probably the taller order.

* A song I wrote in 2004 nailed this concept for me. As I said in my last post, we're all a mixed bag. Here's a link if you're interested in hearing Here I Am, Anyway.

Photo Credit: Anneheathen

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Finding Our Way Through Father's Day

Believe it or not, Father’s Day has only been an “official” holiday in the United States since 1972.

Like, in my lifetime.

That’s not to say that a day to honor fathers’ didn’t exist before then. The explanation I hear most often is that Hallmark created it to make billions on Father’s Day cards. (Poor Hallmark; they always get blamed.) The history of it all is too ho-hum to warrant much fanfare, but it basically played out like this: In 1910, a woman named Sonora Smart Dodson wanted to honor her father, as he had raised six children on his own. So she initiated a celebration of fathers at the Spokane, Washington YMCA. In the 30’s, trade groups started supporting her promotion of the “holiday,” including the newly formed Father’s Day Council, which was founded by the New York Associated Men’s Wear Retailers. [It actually wasn’t Hallmark!] A bunch of nondescript stuff happened over the next 30+ years, but in 1966 LBJ issued a proclamation, and then Richard Nixon signed it in to law in 1972. I’m pretty sure that’s when the Hallmark folks popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

I’m all for honoring fathers and mothers and grandparents. And I don’t even mind buying cards now and then. But there’s no getting around the fact that this day makes a whole lot of folks want to go hide under a rock. And I’ve found that there are varying levels of discomfort among them. Some people wander up and down the card aisle looking for something, anything, that would be even remotely apropos. There are no cards that say, “Don’t worry that you weren’t ever around; I turned out okay anyway” or “You beat me and harshly criticized me as a child, but now you’re pretty alright.” These are the folks that still have enough of a relationship with their father to be buying him a card, but can’t find one that doesn’t gush about him. If you ask me, Hallmark is supremely biased toward the “good father” crowd (which in my estimation has been shrinking for a very long time.) Of course a Father’s Day card isn’t going to adequately express everything you have in your heart about dear old dad, so even if they had cards that offered a little more truth-telling, they probably wouldn’t sell.

One of my biggest “a-ha” moments about tricky relationships came when I was working on my bachelor’s degree a few years ago. My favorite history professor assigned a lot of reading from primary sources, and I found myself studying a document entitled, “On The Jews and Their Lies.”  It’s an anti-Semitic treatise that disturbed and shocked me so much, I made an appointment with my prof to talk about it. Of course anti-Semitism isn’t new, and so reading historical texts that document that prejudice is something you might expect in a Western Civilization class. But what threw me for a loop was its author:

Martin Luther.

The father of the protestant reformation. The guy who’s practically considered a saint in evangelical Christendom (if Evangelicalism even had saints.) I was so taken aback by the vile and hateful content of the text, I had a hard time reconciling it with all of the things Luther did to introduce an alternative to the Catholic Church. Is this even true, I wondered, or did Luther just somehow get framed as the document’s author? Surely he didn’t really say that the Jews are "full of the devil's feces ... which they wallow in like swine," and that the synagogue is an "incorrigible whore and an evil slut." Surely he didn’t recommend that Jewish synagogues and schools be burned to the ground, and that Jews should be forced into slavery.

But I found out that, yes. Yes, he did.

“How in the world can we trust anything that came out of this guy’s mouth if he spewed so much hate?” I asked my professor, when we finally met up in her office.

“Why would millions of Protestants hold him up as reliable source of spiritual guidance?”

“The short answer is that people are a mixed bag,” she replied. “No one is all good or all bad.”

“Yes, but this is extreme!” I argued. “If he were to write something like that today, he’d be put in the same category as Westboro Baptist Church!”

“Probably. But that was then, this is now,” she patiently replied. “We’ve come a long way. And Luther was known for taking extreme stands.”

We sat in silence for a minute. I had a narrative of “But, but, but, but…” playing in my head. She had clearly accepted that he was an extremely complicated individual. And I couldn’t swallow that. On account of this document I wanted to discount everything I’d ever respected about Luther’s teaching. And truth be told I’ve still not been able to reconcile it at all. I’m grateful that he liberated scores of oppressed Catholics, but this whole scenario makes me want to trash him altogether.

The point is, of course, that things aren’t always black and white. I can certainly, categorically, say that “On The Jews and Their Lies” is an evil treatise. To me, that’s black and white. What I can’t, say, however, is that Martin Luther—as a person—was 100% evil. Though he was clearly an extreme racist, he did a lot of good for a lot of people. And quite honestly, that pisses me off.

You probably know where this is going, but the same is true about all of us. Yes, there are varying degrees of discrepancy in our character, but at the end of the day everyone is a mixed bag. I have friends that had extremely wicked fathers, men who sexually abused their daughters and battered their wives. I would imagine that those adult kids don’t wander the card aisle on Father’s Day. They just wander through another 24 hours of collective dad worship trying to find some shred of peace about their past.

There are those who had physically or emotionally abusive dads who are now the kindest, sweetest grandpas to their grandchildren. These men are drastically different people than they were back when they were raging around and verbally decapitating their own children. But to the new generation, they’re the picture of paternal love. 

And then of course there’s the multitude of kids who were abandoned by their fathers and never got the chance to go card shopping.

Obviously I’ve left out one demographic, those people who have (or had) amazing fathers. These folks enjoyed persistent love, advocacy, protection and presence from their dads, and love the opportunity to honor them with a special day. To those folks, I say, “We’re happy for you.” Envious, maybe, but then somebody’s gotta win the lottery. To those who have lost beloved dads, I say, “Grieve, but cherish your memories. You don’t know how fortunate you are to have them.” And to those for whom this day brings up the dad-shaped cavern in your soul, I’d recommend staying off of Facebook and doing something really, really nice for yourself. Something you wish your dad had done for you. And the truth is he might’ve, if he hadn’t been such a mixed bag.

 Image Credit: Peter Hurford,