Perfectionism ought to be one of the first “shoulds” we give up as we experience the jumbles and fumbles of chronic illness and disability. Can we do anything “right?” Are there plans that do not go awry? Once ill or disabled or aging, even the most simple of acts we did “perfectly” well from tying shoes to holding forks to walking might be a series of unforced errors and mishaps.
(Man Proposes, God Disposes is an 1864 oil-on-canvas painting by Edwin Landseer. The work was inspired by the search for Franklin’s lost expedition which disappeared in the Arctic after 1845)
And this does not even include the more complex tasks at work or at home, including sports and relationships, we do not even begin or become harshly self-critical when we are not able to perform them “perfectly.” It is quite arrogant or a delusion to imagine perfection is within the realm of the humanly possible.
After all, God created the heaven and earth, the animals, Adam and Eve in six days, pronounced it “good,” not perfect, but good and on the seventh day, rested. Immediately, problems. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the flood. Oy! If God himself needs to promise, with the sign of the rainbow, that he will not destroy all humans because of his frustration with the imperfect beings he created, how can we presume to get angry at ourselves for our imperfectly lived lives.
David Winnicott, the great British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, introduced many concepts we still value today. Good enough parenting, transitional object, holding environment are all terms he introduced into the culture of child rearing and find applicability in all of our lives whether with children or not.
The good enough parent is one who provides the child with “optimal frustration,” that is experiences with limits. When the child reacts with tears, anger, or collapse, the mature parent does not rage, walk away, or give in. She calmly holds the line. Better the child gets practice in a world that often does not deliver what he wants in the secure and ultimately forgiving arms of a parent than all of a sudden confront unprepared and unpracticed a far less benign world.
Illness gives us a chance to be good enough parents to ourselves, to face our many limits, some unexpected and others too familiar, with neither rage, collapse, or abandoning ambitions. We can meet our falls and failures with equanimity and grace. We are going to get a lot of practice at imperfection.
A saying commonly associated with the Jesuits taken from The Imitation of Christ by the German cleric Thomas à Kempis is “Man proposes, God disposes.” Many of us add, “God willing,” when we propose a future action or outcome. “Not my will, but thine.” All these phrases suggest limits on our ability to influence events. It is so universal an acknowledgement in traditional teaching that we may give it the status of a law as firm as Newton’s. In fact, Gurdjieff gives it a name, “Second, or denying, force.”
We make a plan, to drink more water, for example. Immediately all kinds of events, ranging from external distractions to internal moods or preoccupations “conspire” to foil my efforts. We are probably much better of when we suggest to ourselves and when evaluating others in or out of our family who provide us with care and comfort, “Practice makes pleasure or better, not perfect.”