Be yourself, they said. Don’t worry what anyone else thinks of you, they said. Follow your dreams, and be what you want to be, they said.
What a mantra to live by. The only problem is, it rather assumes that the thing you want to be is a good thing. In my case, the thing I want to be is perfect. I want all the people around me to be happy, and healthy, and doing things they love. They can even be rich or materialistic if they really have to be. But I want me to be perfect. Perfect in body size – hardly original; perfect at work – outstanding, I think they call it in the trade; perfect as a mother – (hides behind a computer screen rather than going to a primary school violin concert, so that’s a fail); perfect as a vicar’s wife – the kind who serves gin and always knows how to solve other people’s problems, whilst simultaneously fixing the photocopier and booking a donkey for Palm Sunday. All round perfect. So when someone says to me “Be what you want to be,” I hear “You must be perfect. And if you’re not perfect, really, pack up and go home.”
And, quite often, that is exactly what I do. Looking at all the options, I know that I can’t do everything, and the fear of not being perfect stops me from doing anything at all. How is it possible to do the right thing in a world full of endless choices and conflicting needs? I want my children to grow up in a world that is not hurtling towards self-destruction with only an air bag as an emergency break, so I know I should drive my own car less. But I also want my kids to be able to do normal things, like going to the cinema or trampolining with friends. And I know that I don’t have the energy to get them there on the bus – and, more importantly, get them back again on the bus, rather than throwing them under it when they’re exhausted and I’ve run out of food to bribe them with. So I start tearing myself up about what is the right thing to do, and is it selfish to put my children’s needs first, and am I using them as an excuse to put my own needs first, and is that selfish, and before I know it, I’ve turned into Chidi from The Good Place, and I’m about to be crushed by an air conditioning unit filled with my own indecision and self-doubt.*
Or what about what clothes to wear. It’s amazing how many implications just that simple decision can have. I want to wear clothes that make me feel good about myself – luxurious and in control. (Yes, I know that clothes aren’t everything – but I also know the magic of the right pair of shoes.) So, I want to wear clothes that make me feel zingy. But, at the moment, I can’t. All my clothes are just too tight. So now, I have a decision to make. I could go on a diet. There are a few out there that I haven’t tried, and I’m sure they would work if I followed them closely enough. But let’s face it: I know how to eat healthily. I’ve done it plenty of times before, and I’m not doing it now. For today, my priority is keeping going, and sod the amount of chocolate bars it takes me to do it. I don’t want to go on a diet – and that decision makes me feel like a failure, because how can I be perfect if I’m doing something that makes me feel bad and not want to do anything about it? Alternatively, I could buy a whole new wardrobe. I know that would be tempting for a lot of people, but you know what, it’s not for me. It would be utterly unsustainable, as it would have to be fast fashion for me to have any hope of affording enough clothes to wear regularly. Also, I really like a lot of my clothes, and I’m not ready to give up on wearing them again. This would make me feel like a failure, because I’m not perfect at sustainability. Finally, I could keep going with what I have. Which is, of course, the default, and therefore what I’ll probably end up doing. But it’s uncomfortable. And it makes me sad, because these clothes used to make me feel zingy, and they don’t any more. And you know what – that just makes me feel like a failure, without even knowing what I’m not being perfect at.
These concerns are small, and self-contained, and a little bit hyperbolic. They are also fundamental to how we see ourselves and our own struggles. Do we look to the impact on the world, and put it over ourselves? Do we look at how others see us as the most important thing? Do we think about how something will make us feel – will it make me happy? Is being happy the ultimate goal?
Pebbles dropped into ponds cause beautiful ripples that flitter and fade. I don’t want to be a pebble, though. I want to be a rock, that, when dropped into the pond, will never be forgotten – that doesn’t leave ripples, but changes the whole landscape. I want to be noticed. I think we all do. And if I can’t be that rock, well, what’s the point of doing anything at all? But bubbles and ripples bring more joy than rocks. They mean life-giving rain, causing ripples and dimples and flowers to grow. They mean skipping stones and taking time to stop, and breathe, and enjoy. If you’re very lucky, they even mean otters, streaming up and down, hidden, half-seen, heard in the rustling of the reeds before they race away, leaving you wondering if you saw anything at all.
We don’t all have the energy to find exciting new sustainable ways of doing things. We don’t all have the strength to keep going through the fear of failure. We don’t all have the privilege of the financial security to lead slow lives, or the family support to do that. What can we do? If we just do what’s easy, we’re ducking out of one of the biggest decisions of our lives. But it’s a decision that we must all make for ourselves.
Be yourself, I say. Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks of you, I say. Have the courage of your convictions, and lead the life you are called to lead, I say. But for goodness sake, don’t think it’s easy working out what that is. Have the courage to accept that for a while, you’re just going to have to wander in the wilderness, dodging perfect whenever you can. After a while, your hard work will pay off. You’ll find your way, and you’ll become wonderfully good enough.
*If you haven’t seen The Good Place, and you have Netflix, I recommend it. Both very funny and full of all the best and the worst of moral philosophy – what more could you ask for?