The Gifts of Imperfection

What a week. And it’s not yet over.  It’s the first week of class at my university, and I tend to forget how much energy that requires until I’m doing it again. Jude has been a kindergartener for three full weeks now, and we’ve side-stepped all the sickness until suddenly today after school, he started feeling really awful and it went downhill fast. He ended up curled up asleep on the couch and feeling feverish. I’m venturing to guess I won’t make it to work tomorrow. My eyes are heavy and my brain half dead right now, but I’m pushing myself to write tonight.

Life. It’s so exhausting sometimes. Single motherhood is no joke.

I spent a lot of time reading Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection last weekend when I was kidless, and I’m wanting to take a minute and reflect on what she outlines in this book before life moves me on to something else. If you aren’t sure who Brene Brown is, she is a scholar / research professor at a university in Texas and has a series of books on what she calls “Wholehearted living.” It’s the culmination of many years of her own research as she collects interviews and details about people and discerns what the qualities are that enable someone to move forward happily after a trauma or catastrophe and what prevents others from doing that. In short, what qualities lead to truly joyful, well-rounded, fulfilled lives where one can bounce back from disappointment. And likewise, what prevents us from accomplishing that?

I relate so closely to much of what she writes about, and I can see common threads within her work and other things I’ve read – Wild, When Things Fall Apart, and even my writing workshop I attended weeks ago.  It’s all essentially the same message: Life is messy. It sometimes hurts really bad. Ignoring the hurt won’t help. You don’t have to be perfect. Be honest and authentic. This pain will be useful to you one day, and you will be a fuller person as a result.

But I do love how heavily her message is bolstered with research, and that makes her stand out from the crowd a bit. It’s easy to question yourself – Should I stop being honest about my own feelings in the midst of all this? Should I soothe my pain with distractions or another relationship? Could I just take the easy way like everyone else seems to?

Her answer to these questions is a resounding no. Or more specifically that you will not live a full and Wholehearted life if you take the easy way. As she notes, “the new cultural belief that everything should be fun, fast, and easy is inconsistent with hopeful thinking. It also sets us up for hopelessness.” I find myself getting a little better about this in recent months, but when my life first exploded and I was doing all of the grueling tasks that were necessary, I couldn’t help but hope that it could just be faster or easier for me. And watching the fast and easy route unfold for my former partner made it especially hard. But Brown reminds us that nothing good ever emerges without some toil and suffering or at least careful effort and slow thought, certainly not where self-development and relationships are concerned. It’s hard when you are in the thick of it though. I know it would be easier in the short term to rely on outside distractions.

It was not long at all for me – soon after Christmas – when I was already beginning to see the difference between a happy life and a joyful life. And as the months have rolled by, I will say that is something I’ve been getting pretty good at. Finding the joyful moments amidst the chaos has been a lifeline for me. I’ve written about this before, and my happiness jar serves as a diligent gratitude practice for me to see the silver lining. (That is also something she addresses. Gratitude as a concept you say you uphold is entirely different than the transforming power of a daily gratitude practice.) Brown explains that “a joyful life is not a floodlight of joy. That would eventually become unbearable. I believe a joyful life is made up of joyful moments strung together by trust, gratitude, inspiration, and faith… The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.”  It’s the same concept Pema Chodron addresses in the book I read this summer; it’s only when we feel the sadness that we really feel the joy. And the most joyful (not surface happy, but truly joyful) moments of our lives are often tinged with the tiniest bit of awareness that it is all fleeting, all temporary. It’s that happy-sad that hollows out your insides as it makes you smile.  Brene Brown explains that the people she studies who truly live Wholeheartedly “were quick to point out the difference between happiness and joy as the difference between a human emotion that’s connected to circumstances and a spiritual way of engaging with the world that is connected to practicing gratitude.”  I alluded to this in my bodhichitta post weeks ago, but the surface happy is not always tolerable to me in this season of my life. True joy is another story entirely.

Brene Brown steps out of the shoes of objective observer at moments in the book to explain that her research actually led to her own “breakdown spiritual awakening” as she calls it. (That alone made me giggle as I see breakdown synonymous with spiritual awakening in my own life as well.) After researching her subjects and discerning what made them live Wholehearted lives full of purpose and resilience and promise, she realized that she was actually not doing any of these things they did and not living with the purpose she craved. Enemy number one, as she assures the reader, is comparison; “the comparison mandate becomes the crushing paradox of ‘fit in and stand out!’ It’s not cultivate self-acceptance, belonging, and authenticity; it’s be just like everyone else, but better.” That rang true for me in a number of ways. Fit in and stand out. The impossible goal and the exact command that is echoed to us from everywhere.

I think what has been so liberating about my past year is that I can no longer do that. I can’t fit in to the mold presented to me, and my family has a new shape. I am the only parent in my household. I am not creating some life that looks exactly like my old one, and I am unable to pretend my old one never existed. Things have taken a shape that doesn’t fit the mold, and it’s left me with two choices. I can hold shame and self-doubt and feel unfinished and broken, or I can look the world in the face and decide that I am enough on my own, and someone else’s inability to see my worth doesn’t dictate my value in any way. Brene’s reminder that “overcoming self-doubt is all about believing we’re enough and letting go of what the world says we are supposed to be and supposed to call ourselves” echoes so similarly to the major lesson I’ve learned in the midst of my changes.

I know for certain that there is a spiritual component to all of this – in whatever form you choose to swallow it. I’d read months ago about a researcher who studies resilience and discovered that there were two crucial components to resiliency after a personal tragedy: a sense of community (only possible by investing in them previously) and a belief in a higher purpose or power in life that is guiding your steps and unfolding your path. I can see the guidance of both of these forces for me. I don’t know how I would have made it without them, to be honest. And they continue to guide me. Brown illustrates, “Feelings of hopelessness, fear, blame, pain, discomfort, vulnerability, and disconnection sabotage resilience. The only experience that seems broad and fierce enough to combat a list like that is the belief that we are all in this together and that something greater than us has the capacity to bring love and compassion into our lives.”  I can see this in my own life ten times over. Hopelessness, fear, blame, and pain pretty much summarize where this journey began, but I don’t feel them at all anymore. A belief in something greater is the only thing that releases those feelings, and as Anne Lamott says in another comment on spirituality that I love, “Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness, and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.” You just have to wait it out, and eventually you see the light emerge a bit. But you only get there by holding space for all the other feelings and trusting the light will return eventually.

I think my favorite part of Brene Brown’s discussion of this was when she stepped out of the research to explain the challenges she encountered when she began to change her own life on a fundamental level to follow a pattern of one who lives Wholeheartedly. Foremost in that journey, according to her research, is showing your vulnerability and embracing that softness. She explains she was scared to take that leap of taking about her feelings and fears as “most of us have shame triggers around being perceived as self-indulgent or self-focused. We don’t want our authenticity to be perceived as selfish or narcissistic.”  I felt a kinship reading her fears as I’ve definitely worried about that in the past few months. Finding a balance between knowing yourself and focusing too intently on your own self seems like a difficult place to achieve. And she warns us that “the truth is that meaningful change is a process. It can be uncomfortable and often risky, especially when we’re talking about embracing our imperfections, cultivating authenticity, and looking the world in the eye and saying ‘I am enough.’ It’s an act of rebellion, really. I’m finding that to be true every day. Not making excuses for yourself. Not hiding behind some vague attempt at perfection. Not working hard to “fit in and stand out.” It’s a constant battle that not everyone is going to understand.

Brene Brown warns us of the fallout that can happen in our own lives when we stop playing the perfection game and start embracing vulnerabilities and truthfulness. “As we struggle to be authentic and brave, it’s important to remember that cruelty always hurts, even if the criticisms are untrue. When we go against the grain and put ourselves and our work out into the world, some people will feel threatened and they will go after what hurts the most – our appearance, our lovability, and even our parenting.” Yes, a million times over. It hurts but it’s worth it.

There’s no time like now. As much as I want to smooth over these wrinkles to save my own face a bit and pretend some things never happened and some feelings never existed, I know I can’t. It’s hard work but it’s getting me to the other side, and I can feel it changing everything about who I am and where I will go in this lifetime. As Brown says in the closing chapter of the book, “You’re going to confuse, piss off, and terrify lots of people – including yourself. … You’ll also wonder how you can so brave and so afraid at the same time. At least that’s how I feel most of the time … brave, afraid, and very, very alive.”  Is there any other way to be? I feel like my options are safe and small and trapped in the circle of blame and perfectionism or scared and transparent and alive. And it’s my life and mine alone. I’m voting for brave and alive.

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