Life is no argument. The conditions of life might include error. Friedrich Nietzsche
In the Greek myth, when Persephone is abducted into the underworld, her mother, Demeter, pitches what my mother would have called ‘a holy fit.’ She cries; she wails; she pleads; she pouts; she punishes. She will not accept she refuses to be consoled. In the end, she strikes a deal with the devil himself, and agrees that her daughter can stay to live with Hades half the year if she is allowed to return to earth for the other half. Bargain done, she restores fertility to the land and thus assures abundance for all the people.
A client came to me seeking a solution for her ‘depression.’ She said that she had lost her cherished child several years before and she had never recovered from that loss. She felt that she was being unfair to the people in her life her husband, her two living children, her parents, and friends. They worried for her and wanted her to return to the person she was before the loss competent, energetic, and happy. She said she wanted that, too, but thought that person was now quite lost.
As she spoke of these things and we explored her ‘symptoms’, I asked her to talk about the time just after her daughter’s death. She said that she tried very hard to ‘handle it well’, to be brave, and to attend to the needs of her family. She was embarrassed that she ‘cried all the time. I just couldn’t stop. I wanted to crawl away and hide from people, from life. And then I’d be so furious; I wanted to scream at them all to leave me alone. I hated the people who said, it’s God’s will, she’s in a better place, and all that. But I didn’t scream, mostly I smiled and cried.’
One of the things I love most about myths is how perfectly imperfect the characters are. My client was caught in the modern demand for perfection. She knew what others expected, needed, from her. She knew what a mature functioning adult would do in that situation. And she tried to be that, to do that. And failed to grieve. And lost her self in the process.
Just how perfect do we want to be? Do we want to lose our best selves to the compulsion for perfection? Of course we cannot define perfection, but that never seems to stop our quest for it and our attempts to fit to some faulty model of it we have acquired over the years.
Rachel Naomi Remen in her amazing (truly!) book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, tells the following story, which she titles ‘Grist for the Mill’.
One of the book agents responsible for getting many of the most innovative thinkers in psychology and spirituality published in the sixties and early seventies, years before anyone else could have sold these books, seemed to be a self-absorbed and ruthless man. At the time I met him I was studying spiritual paths, many of which emphasized the need to clean up your act in order to be able to serve a universal purpose. Yet here was a man to whom most spiritual teachers would have assigned a million years of practice, who had nevertheless done great good in the world, spreading life-affirming ideas through the culture like a Johnny Appleseed. But many spiritual schools would have encouraged people with the same personal traits to spend most of their time in meditation, preparing to serve. I just could not understand it.
Over the years I have learned that ‘cleaning up one’s act’ may be far less important than consecrating one’s life. It may be possible to use everything. A ruthless man may be able to open doors that a more kindly and traditionally spiritual person could knock on forever. Without judgment, many things can be made holy.
So, how might my client have made her grief holy had she not felt the need to make herself acceptable? How might you express your love, your vitality, your power, your energy, or your pain without your need to be perfect? I am often accused of being ‘compulsive,’ meaning perfectionistic, over-responsible, or relentless in some ways. My friends say I’m ‘busy’ and over the years, many well-meaning people have suggested I might benefit from more rest and relaxation. For a while, I tried that. I tried to shape myself into these others’ ideas of what would be good for me (and maybe for them?). I could hear that I had fallen short somehow, that I was less than perfect and I wanted to learn, to be better, to be healthier, to be the proper shape to fit into this place. I wanted people to approve of me and of my choices.
I found the whole thing incredibly boring.
Then, one day, I sighed and said, I guess this is just the way I am and it needs to be fine with me. So I said, YES! I am that. I’ve been busy as a bee since then and having a great old time. People still have things to say about it from time to time and I say ‘thanks for your interest’. After all, the most important thing we can give each other is our interest, our attention. But I am not seeking perfection I’m just trying to be the best me I can be right now.
What might you say yes to?
The hardest challenge is to be yourself in a world where everyone is trying to make you somebody else. E. E. Cummings