A perfect failure

These days, I work under the premise that we can approach spirituality in one of two ways. One aims to help us recognize and deal with our lack of control over the universe. The second attempts to convince us that we do have control–or that we have the favor or blessing of whomever or whatever is in control.

I tend to place myself firmly with team not-in-control. The best I can do, I’ve come to believe, is to seek truth and try to act in tune with what I find, come what may. I tend to think of team control as Team Superstition: if we believe this doctrine, follow this ritual, worship this deity, repeat these words, we will be safe and fortunate forever into eternity, amen. The practices of Team S can be as small and innocuous as throwing salt over your shoulder after you spill some to ward off back luck, and as institutional and far reaching as thinking those who don’t share your doctrine are subhuman.

Funny thing, religious people can be on either team, and non-religious people can be on either team. If you think that through rationalism or some other intellectual theory you can perfect human beings and create a permanent utopia, I’m going to put you solidly in Team S. That’s control-freakishness on steroids in my book. On the other hand, if you’re a nun who spends a lifetime believing that doubt and faith are inseparable, understanding that you will probably never know the *real* answer, that sounds more team not-in-control.

But let’s get back to talking about me. Because even though I see myself as Mr. Not-Control, I do have a practice that heavily influences my life and is all about superstition: perfectionism.

I try to pretend that my insistence on loading the dishwasher in a certain way comes from a desire for efficiency. I tell myself that folding my clothes this way rather than that (or keeping the kids from running in the house, or making the bed, or whatever other manifestations of my need for order) arises from purely practical motives. But honestly, who am I kidding? (Certainly not my partner or my children.)

I make and follow these rules for myself because a little person deep in the recesses of my brain tells me they’ll keep us safe. And I figured out that this is the case because I’ve noticed what happens when things don’t stay within the confines of my sense of order.

I get scared. Not mildly annoyed, but anxious.

I don’t think consciously, “If that sock is left on the bedroom floor (a carpeted floor, mind you) my son could slip on it and lose his balance and fall head-first against the window sill and suffer a traumatic brain injury that will put him into a coma and make him a vegetable and drain our financial resources, ruining the life of his younger sister too and she will become an embittered drug addict who falls into a life of crime, all while our country continues to spin out of control, thereby shredding the social safety net further and all of us will die in a right-wing concentration camp with mud floors.”

No, I don’t actually think all that consciously to myself. But that’s how it feels. To my credit, most of the time I don’t act on those feelings. Well, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I end up speaking with a certain tone in my voice that isn’t quite yelling (honest, it isn’t) but has, I have to admit, an edge of frenzy to it.

It’s one thing to prefer a certain way of doing things; it’s another to have to have things a certain way and to expect others to go along. And it becomes, in my case, a third thing when this insistence on being sure that I know everything is going to be okay gets in the way of my trying new things or doing my work writing because I’m afraid it won’t turn out the way I need it to turn out. So best to do nothing.

In short, my perfection has often crippled me from just acting and letting life take its course. It’s held me back from taking the chances, even small ones, that make life enjoyable and fulfilling.

At the end of the day, we’re all perfect failures. We can’t control everything; we can’t bend the universe to our will; we aren’t perfect creatures. And I’m just now realizing that accepting this can lead to so much more joy.

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