Failure and Perfection
Last weekend, we went ice skating as a family for the first time. My daughters and husband had a great time, while I literally fell flat on my face. And my derriere. I made my way slowly and painfully around the rink only one time before throwing in the towel. It was, to say the least, embarrassing.
That was not how I envisioned the morning. I imagined us skating as a family, laughing as we glided around the ice together. I imagined helping my daughters up from falls and encouraging them to try again. Instead, they were the ones offering help and encouraging me: “You can do it, mom! Good job!”
I’m prone to idealistic thinking, and it’s good to imagine how things can be at their very best. When I was teaching, I constantly reworked my syllabi to better achieve my goals — I even worked on redesigning an entire major. I’ve grown to love the process of revising my writing, reworking sentences to be tighter, clearer, more forceful or graceful. I tweak recipes that I make frequently, adjusting proportions until the end result matches my aspirations.
My desire to get things right has made me a good teacher and researcher. It keeps my desk clear and my meals planned, my deadlines met and my children delivered to school on time.
But this idealism has another name: perfectionism.
And that’s the darker side of my idealism. Perfectionism means that the ideal — the often impossible ideal — is my goal. Perfect doesn’t mean that my kids eat reasonably healthy meals most days; it means that I cheerfully cook balanced dinners every night and never serve mac and cheese from a box or order a pizza.
Perfect doesn’t leave room for failures, and in my perfectionism any deviation from the ideal is a failure.
I know, of course, that living with this perfectionism is unsustainable. But as my fellow perfectionists understand, it can be hard to reconcile that knowledge with the strong feeling that if we just try hard enough we can, indeed, attain the ideal. After all, doesn’t the bible tell us to be holy as God is holy? And if we should aim for this high ideal, why not all the high ideals?
But I’m learning, slowly, sometimes painfully, always imperfectly, how to live in the tension between the ideal good and the imperfect real. I can’t abandon my ideals; hope, after all, depends on believing that things can be better, believing I can be better. But I also have to accept that I can’t be perfect. I can’t be as holy as God, even if I am supposed to aim for that goal. I can’t live a life without failure. I can’t even excel at everything: I have to balance my sanity against a vision of my children happily eating vegetables every night.
So last weekend, I had to accept that my ideal vision of joyful family skating simply didn’t match reality. And you know what? It was okay. I applauded my daughters as they went around the rink, gaining confidence in a new activity even as they fell. I even applauded myself for making it once around rink and not quitting after the first fall. And I want to try again, with a better pair of skates but also with the expectation that we will have fun in the midst of falls and failures.
And maybe that’s the ideal after all.