Friday, 30 March 2012

On Looking for Perfection

Two weeks ago, I moved. My new house requires almost total refurbishment; a new kitchen, a new bathroom, new doors, a new roof on the single storey extension and complete re-decoration. The days have passed in a blur of chaos and dust. Evenings have been spent trying to remember where I put the torch – there’s no light in the bathroom until the electricians come on Monday.

Every wall, window, and floor is also inexplicably dirty. The previous occupants clearly hadn’t spent much time cleaning, and the house was left unoccupied for nine months before I moved in. There is so much to do that at times I’ve been overwhelmed; unable to decide on what to tackle next, I’ve ended up lying on the bed, waiting for the brain-paralysis to pass.

For some months leading up to the move, I’d been congratulating myself on overcoming my perfectionist tendencies. I seemed to have developed a much greater tolerance of mess, and was even enjoying my own untidiness. It felt freeing, creative even, for my clothes, books, and papers to be strewn across the room in no discernible order. By contrast, I deemed my ex-partner’s ascetic, minimalist approach to be rigid, controlling.

When I was very young, a family friend dubbed me Little Miss Prunes and Prisms, a reference to the priggish and primly precise behaviour of one of Dickens’s characters. My natural tendency to perfectionism was compounded by being brought up in the Puritan belief that cleanliness and tidiness are a testament to one’s moral uprightness. Blemishes, dirt, or disorder seemed to be inherently wrong and if I didn’t right that wrong, I was similarly tainted. It was almost as if objects themselves – dirty dishes, untidy piles of clothes, weeds – demanded action from me, and I couldn’t relax until they had been attended to. For years, I was unable to see that the sense of imperfection came from within rather than residing in the outside world; I was projecting my own, internal sense of wrongness onto external objects.

Over the last week, two fitters have installed a shiny white kitchen. For several days, I was consumed with decisions about worktops, shelving, gas hobs, and taps. Once the piles of flat pack cartons started to resemble a kitchen, however, I noticed a familiar train of thought had reappeared. There’s a slight scratch on the side of that cabinet. Darn! They should have been more careful. There’s so much dust on the floor. And so on...the urge for the room to look spotless was in full swing. And I, a temporary slave to perfectionism once more, began to scrub, clean, and tidy to the nth degree. Finally, I realised that the dirty walls and unpacked boxes do not mean anything in themselves, and they do not reflect on me; I was then able to drop the shoulds and oughts, and relax for the evening.

What we perfectionists fail to notice is that everything is already perfect, exactly the way it is. At times, I’ve found that an incredibly difficult notion to accept. How can this be perfect? Look at everything that is wrong, bad, or unfair. There is so much to change, to make better, to improve. We have a subtle belief that if we simply accepted everything is fine just the way it is, chaos would descend, and nothing would ever get done.

One day last year, I saw the perfection implicit in all things, just as I was walking into the supermarket. The shelves laden with unhealthy food, mothers shouting at their kids – all the things that I’m often judgemental about – were seen to be absolutely perfect. I saw the perfection of life, and my own perfection along with it. In that moment, I knew that true perfection is what we are, here and now, in whatever circumstances we’re in. There is nothing that we need to change. Blemishes, dirt, and all.

Monday, 5 March 2012

On Being Unwell

There’s somewhere I planned to go this week, somewhere I really wanted to be today, and it’s not here. I’d made arrangements, sought out train times, booked accommodation. I’d told people that’s what I was doing. I’d even got a little excited; it was going to be the first adventure I've had in a while.

Instead, I’ve spent the last twenty four hours in bed, in pain. A deeply familiar pain, as this is an ailment that goes back many years. A pain that has withstood all my attempts to block it out, to deal with it, to understand it, to render it even a little less painful; it has yielded to nothing.

Whilst the pain is present, there is nothing I can do except to lie. My body and I have no choice but to give over to the symptoms. No reading, no watching TV, very little talking. All everyday movement and activity ceases. Thought continues, of course. With no structure to corral it, my mind ranges free at these times, in and out of day dream and sleep dream. All manner of memories and notions come and go, at random. Pictures, words, fragments of songs.

Emotions, too, ebb and flow. Yesterday, I watched as the familiar companions to pain – shame and a deep sense of failure – came to visit. We so often see illness as some kind of punishment or judgement, however subtle that belief may be. At various points in time, sickness has been seen as the devil’s work; an evil that needs to be cast or beaten out, or a spell that has to be broken. Even now, that view – the modernised, de-devilled version of it – persists. What is this about? What is it in me that is manifesting in this way? Maybe it’s a hormone or vitamin deficiency. Maybe this is about some unacknowledged emotional pain. The more we hook into the plethora of possible solutions, the more we see grounds for believing that we are not okay the way we are. It seems self-evident – surely, if we were okay, then this suffering would not be happening?

For many years, it seemed to me that if I could just hit on the right solution, then the pain would stop. If I could just get it right, whatever it was. The right affirmation, the right painkiller, the right supplement, the right remedy, the right therapy or practitioner, the right belief about myself...all these and more have, at one time or another, held out the promise of redemption. I’ve hoped, and seen those hopes dashed. And when we don’t find the right solution, we end up suffering twice over - once with the illness itself, and twice with the belief that we shouldn’t have it in the first place, that it is down to some weakness or deficiency in ourselves.

This belief shows up in our language, too. Invalid. Disabled. We talk about disease as the other; we fight it, do battle with it, become a victim of it, succumb to it. And when we are unable to overcome it, we see ourselves as having failed, as having some inherent and unfixable flaw.

The whole movement to make ourselves better says, This shouldn’t be happening. I shouldn’t feel this way. We’re accustomed to think of illness as bad, so we view pain and other symptoms as undesirable imposters that we should get rid of as quickly as we can. But what if it is this very belief that creates the real suffering, rather than the pain itself?

Of course, pain is painful – that is its nature. And there is nothing wrong with using whatever means we have at our disposal to attempt to alleviate our pain. But what if we question the belief that it shouldn’t be happening? What if we are able to simply lie in bed, without asking why, without coming up with solutions and fixes? What if we are able to stay with the discomfort and the sensations arising right here and now? That, it seems to me, is a much kinder and more compassionate way to treat ourselves. To give ourselves time and space to be exactly how we are. To allow ourselves the down days, the pain days, the sick days, whenever and wherever we need them. To stop hounding ourselves for not being constantly on the move, constantly valid

It's time for another cup of tea and an hour more in bed.