Aug 09, 2012 0 Share

A Pair of Perfectionists

Circular library window--looking out from inside.
Photo by Caroline McGraw

I stare out the window and watch the storm blow in. Winds toss the trees, and their branches bend and sway. As I was biking over to the library this afternoon, I felt the strong breeze as a welcome relief from the heat of the day. The sky, then as now, is ominous, but ensconced as I am in my second-story alcove, I don't mind; we need the rain. When my husband and I relocated to Alabama in June, we moved into a house just a few blocks away from a lovely local library, and I come every weekday to write and create. And today, I think about the ways in which I am akin to my brother Willie, the traits that tie us together. 

My brother and I are both perfectionists; it's hard for us to feel as though we've failed at anything. We get frustrated if we can't master a skill quickly, and we need encouragement in order to keep going. On the phone last week, my mom told me that Willie had started doing something strange with his Sudoku books: When he'd reached a puzzle with a level of complexity that daunted him, he'd started filling in random numbers. Our mom felt that he was capable of solving the most challenging puzzles, but Willie had, apparently, decided otherwise. During his daily Sudoku time, he'd fill in the boxes with incorrect numbers, rather than leave them blank. Our mom told him, “Willie, if you don't like to do it, you don't have to do it! It's okay.” Willie did not like the idea of changing his daily routine, or being called out on his new practice of “cheating” the numbers. He tore his Sudoku book to pieces later that day. 

When I hear stories like this, I just shake my head, ruefully. A younger version of me would be critical, with thoughts such as, “Seriously! Why can't he just chill out? It's not a big deal.” Now, however, my thoughts are different. Having acknowledged how much I struggle with perfectionism, I am more merciful toward my brother. As Willie finds reassurance in his Oops, no big deal!”  mantra, I know that those same words have the power to put me back in perspective, too. And since my (very patient) husband has been teaching me to drive our stick-shift pickup truck for the last few weeks, I've become better acquainted with my tendency to personalize “failure.” When I stalled out several times at a stop light on a drive through our town, I felt such embarrassment and frustration that I handed the keys to my husband. As he drove us away, I promptly burst into tears. (If there had been a Sudoku book instead of a pickup truck before me, I might very well have torn it up.) 

No matter that I'd managed to navigate the truck from one side of town to the other before the goof-up occurred. No matter that, as it turned out, I was in third gear at that stop light … and if you try to go forward in third gear from a stop, you are bound to stall out. In the moment, though, none of those facts mattered much to me; I was awash in shame. I couldn't drive the way I wanted to, and I'd screwed up in front of other drivers, and in front of my husband. I'd stood out from the crowd in a negative way. I wanted to quit, and maybe move to another town. 

But then we got home, and went for a long walk in the fading light. Walking is like meditation for me, and it is for Willie as well—he loves to go for long walks and take the lead. As my husband and I moved through the streets, I thought of my brother and dried my tears. Willie and I both need to learn that perfection isn't about never messing up. Instead, I believe, it's about the strength and maturity it takes to pick oneself up and try again. A storm had blown through me that day, but as it passed, there was quiet, and a chance for redemption.