Knowing everything: The foolishness of the young.
Silence: Where creativity and the heart speak the loudest.
In a single night, the twisted culmination of all my childhood fears was magnified tenfold when I heard the blood-curdling screams of my mother and sister end with gun fire. I instantly jumped out of my bed, knowing that I had only seconds before my stepfather Jed got to me. The pounding of my heart was nearly as loud as the screams of my mother and sister. “Should I hide?” I wondered. No; Jed would find me for sure. I quickly took the only option I had: I flung the bedroom door open and ran! As I reached the top of the carpeted staircase and began to descend, I heard Jed’s heavy steps on the creaking floor behind me. I missed a couple of the stairs but caught myself on the wooden banister before I tumbled any farther. I realized my hurried escape from this madman was all in vain when once again I heard the gut- wrenching sound of gun fire. My lifeless body fell relentlessly to the bottom of the stairs.
Suddenly, my eyes flew open and I sat straight up in the bed. “You’re okay, Shawn,” I said out loud, calming myself as I’d had to do night after night from this recurring hellish nightmare. As I looked around the room, I immediately felt a comforting peace flood over me. “I’m at Grandma’s house!”
I was safe. With my tranquilizing realization, I gently fell back to sleep, smiling.
The anticipation and excitement I generally felt before a weekend at Grandma’s was truly on par with Christmas Eve or the night before a coveted trip to an amusement park. Maybe it was just the simple fact that while spending time with her I got to truly experience, even for a short time, what it felt like just to be a kid.
It seemed as though my Grandma had meticulously prepared for hours before each visit on how she could fashion our limited time together to be the most enjoyable and exciting experience ever. I’m sure it was just Grandma being Grandma, but to me it was magical.
At one time or another, Grandma must have recognized my artistic abilities and love for creating things. I’m not sure when the tradition began, but I clearly remember running to the hallway closet to peek into the large box of goodies that Grandma had been collecting for me. Each time I eagerly looked into my cardboard treasure box, I was never disappointed to find newly added items like brass buttons, small cigar boxes, and colored construction paper waiting for me inside.
Creating things with my hands was very therapeutic for me and I would often spend hours on end sprawled out on the green carpeted floor of the guest bedroom cutting, drawing, and formulating some sort of childhood masterpiece. This creative flow had become an effective way that I comforted myself and steadied my traumatized emotions.
I recall one time in particular while playing in the guest room at Grandma’s, building a single-story house made of paper, Elmer’s glue, and cardboard boxes. I scrupulously designed and decorated each room, one by one. Grandma would sometimes come in to sit with me and enthusiastically ask me questions about what I was building. She would also often have to lovingly prompt me to break long enough from my architectural composition to enjoy a sandwich and chips before continuing with my creative burst of obsession. Otherwise, I would have stayed in there all day.
In the evening, Grandpa Roy would often head into town to the American Legion or his favorite bar while Grandma and I indulged in a classic movie night with some of her famous homemade chocolate popcorn. We loved old movies, especially the ones with Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. Grandma would sometimes reminisce during the commercial breaks about going to the picture show for a dime when she was a little girl and how much simpler life was then. Nobody could tell a good ole story like Grandma!
Grandma was so unselfishly affectionate towards me and I drank in her love like the parched summer grass consumes a nourishing rain. To me, my grandmother was sunshine. She was the most beautiful song that never gets old, played over and over again. She was a nurturer, a healer, a childhood companion, an inspiring creative teacher. She was a gift to me.
We respond to life differently when we finally realize most of our suffering is self-induced by our own fears.
Do you have any idea how exhausting it is to be a perfectionist?
That’s right: I’m a perfectionist. Well, a recovering one. I’ve been a perfectionist for 60 years.
It all started when I was very young, told that I had perfect manners, a perfect physique, perfect clothes, a perfect haircut, perfect grades in school. Every turn presented another opportunity to be perfect and to be rewarded for it. I became addicted.
A mere ten years into my perfect life, I received a test paper back from my fifth-grade teacher with a grade of 87 on it. I couldn’t believe my eyes! That was a B. I’d never made a B before. I angrily stuffed the paper into my perfect tartan-plaid book satchel, flung my matching wool scarf around my neck, and boarded the school bus. I seethed, considering whether to tell my parents or schedule a conference with my teacher, who certainly made plenty of mistakes herself. How dare she give me a B!
I exited the bus, headed to the barn, and cranked up the garden tractor. I needed to drive. I needed to control a piece of machinery. I needed to unleash my anger on something. At the edge of the thicket, I hit a walnut tree with the back tire. I was thrown backward off the seat, my right leg caught between the spinning tire and the fender. I was dragged a few feet on the cold winter ground until I was freed. I lay there paralyzed, staring at the sky.
Six hours of surgery later, I woke up in the hospital with my leg in traction. It had not been severed, but it was close. I spent most of those Christmas holidays in the hospital, followed by several weeks of excruciating physical therapy and the threat that I might always limp or that my right leg would be shorter than my left. The 85 stitches in my inner thigh left a huge scar in the shape of a cross. My body was no longer perfect. And I still had that B.
Having told this story verbally many times, I was invited by my pastor to share it in church. Immediately, I began writing it in my head, because, of course, it had to be perfect. As I pondered the irony of that, I remembered this story as perhaps my first indication that insisting on perfectionism can lead to disaster. It’s a futile and dangerous attempt.
Perfectionism is, in fact, not perfect itself. It’s one of the many –isms we see playing out in ourselves, a cheap representation of the real thing. It’s pretentious. So, I give up on pretending. I’m giving up on being the best, and embracing being my best. What is “the best”, anyway? Who’s running the contest? Who’s keeping score? My only competitor is myself. The world has ever seen only one example of perfection, and there’s no need for more.
I’m having a breakthrough with this, as I remember, once again, that I’m not perfect—that it is humanly impossible. It’s very much like breaking open an egg and finding what’s inside the shell. Although the shell is no longer perfect looking, we find that the contents are where the real value is—the bright, delicious, nourishing, versatile innards is what people really want.
Since that life-changing accident when I was ten years old, I assure you I have relapsed into perfectionism many times over. Such is the nature of the addict, and I’m of the opinion that every person past a certain age is likely addicted to something, however innocent or harmful. It’s part of being human. The more living I do, the more aware I am, and the more facile I become with curtailing my addiction to being perfect, as well as my many other –isms.
Dear God, creator and giver of all life, thank you for making me in your image, not in your perfect exactness. Please help me remember that I am whole, complete, and beautiful just as I am and as I am becoming, flaws and all, and grant me the compassion to keep breaking through and to see that same divine imperfection in everyone else. Amen.