cw: the pull toward perfection and the harm I cause myself
In my tradition*, we are held to a very high standard. We weigh potential harm, think through all the contexts and circumstances and options that we can, and we act in the way we believe is the best at the time. We can’t be perfect but we try very hard to get there. This is one of the things I love best about my tradition, and I know that this pull toward perfection comes from not just my innate hope, but the trauma of my childhood and never being able to make a choice about anything that didn’t bring down the delegated wrath of God on my head.
I have struggled my whole life to do everything the right way. Sometimes, this resulted in me getting so close to a shining moment of rightness that it propelled me forward. Usually, it resulted in pain and disappointment and broken things that needed to be fixed. Too much personal responsibility isn’t personal responsibility any more, I don’t think. It’s taking responsibility for things that weren’t yours to begin with.
I’ve been told by someone I deeply respect that perfection is not possible. It is painfully upsetting that this is true. I want to be perfect, I want to attain an existence in which all my choices are correct and none of them are harmful or poorly thought out or a failure simply because I don’t have all the information and I can only do my best with what I know at the time.
Earlier this afternoon I was trying to rest because I’m just so tired today; and without very much thought in that direction, I remembered something I wished I hadn’t: I remember my toddler daughter, waiting in the backseat of the car at the gas station where we were supposed to meet her dad so she could have parenting time with him, and we waited and waited and waited and finally when he didn’t show up she put her little face in her little hands and just quietly cried, and my heart broke. Because there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t control the choices of others then, and I still can’t. And even if I could, that would cross a line I’m not willing to cross. This memory still invokes so much pain in me. For me, there has been nothing worse in my life compared to my inability to protect the people I love from the things that hurt them.
I can do my best but that never means it’s going to have been enough to keep the monster under the bed from escaping so that it can’t eat anyone.
In table-top role-playing game terminology, it seems that I’m a classic paladin character type that hasn’t caught up to the new ruleset:
From 1st through 3rd edition, paladins were required to maintain the Lawful Good alignment. In addition, compared with other classes the paladin class has one of the most restrictive codes of conduct and paladin characters are expected to demonstrate and embody goodness. Failure to maintain a lawful good alignment or adhere to the code of conduct causes paladins to lose their paladin status and many of their special abilities until they are able to atone. With the introduction of the 4th edition of D&D, paladins become champions of a chosen deity instead of just righteous warriors, paladins can be of any alignment, and can no longer fall in disgrace and lose their paladinhood.
My internal compass insists that I must orient myself toward what is right no matter the cost, and oftentimes this urge toward perfection causes actual problems. We are always dealing with things that don’t work perfectly, situations that don’t resolve easily, people who disappoint us. I am trying to be perfect and to remember that I can’t be; to both shoot for the stars and remember that the closest I can probably get is to the moon. Even when I don’t harm someone else, I am at the very least harming myself.
My inner terror of doing wrong translates to a fear of being a wrong person, and it keeps me frozen, not making any choices at all. Or, I throw caution to the wind and react from the other side of things — the part of me that knows I can’t ever actually be perfect — and I make choices that are less thoughtful than I’m capable of.
I’m not saying that I know where the middle ground is, but I am saying that I’m trying to see where it is so that I can stand there and see how it feels.
Our big chosen-family household, our intentional community of people, lives by guidelines inspired by old Celtic tribal societies. We consider how to be in reciprocal relationships with one another, with our gods, with the spirits of our house, with the spirits of the land we live on. We fuck up and we find ways to apologize that take responsibility for what was done and how it harmed the other. We are on the receiving end of a fuck-up and have to take time to consider what harm happened to us and how we can restore our relationship with that person. A good way to describe it is probably the relational-cultural theory, which is frankly fascinating and something that I want to spend more time reading and thinking about.
As you can probably guess after everything I wrote above, I am terrified of being a person that fucks up. It is so upsetting to me that I go through a crisis of self-identity any time there are consequences that go further than that I may have accidentally hurt someone’s feelings (although that is still a thing that deserves restoration of the relationship between us). Right now, I am working on understanding myself as a dichotomous being that can strive for perfection and understand that I will never get there. And unfortunately, I don’t think that I’ll have this figured out and nailed down any time soon, if at all. I have to be okay with the imperfection of that as well.
* ‘my tradition’ refers to the Path of Light tradition that I have been training in; it is rigorous, to say the least. If you’re curious about it, email my elder.
Post title lyric selection from In the End, a Linkin Park song that I often play when I am angry with myself and depressed. On Spotify, it’s their number one most listened to song.
featured image is ‘Perfect’ by Poorly Drawn Lines