Perfectly Natural: Visibility, Failure, Winning and Losing

I remember the first book about anorexia I ever found in my desperate search for help. It was called Addiction to Perfection. It was useless like everything else, but it was slim pickings in those days (no pun intended of course!) It did get me thinking, however, about my perfectionism, not only about my body but about everything really. What is that? Where does that kind of arrogance, grandiosity, and delusion come from? In AA, they used to call it “an insult to god.”

Like many a child of neglect, I had many questions about my existence. I was convinced that I was truly out of sight/out of mind. That if I were not in someone’s direct line of vision, poof, I instantly disappeared ghostlike from their world, imminently forgettable. Once, when our 9th grade AP English class was going to the theatre for a field trip, I thought we were going to see Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. It was an event, an evening outing we were all excited about. Our teacher, Mr. Tanner, was doing the transport and somehow forgot to pick me up! I missed the play! Of course, thinking about it now, I wonder why no one else tried to get me there once the pickup time had come and gone.  What was it about me? Maybe if I were extraordinary, I would somehow edge into existence. Or at least break even somehow. It would probably help to not make any mistakes. I might cut my losses that way.

Children of unhealed traumatized parents can readily spark something that activates a parent into some sort of outburst or withdrawal, either of which may be frightening or most likely disconnecting for the child. “Walking on eggshells” to avoid land mines or trip wires makes for extreme caution, danger and anxiety… never knowing quite what will and will not be OK. The whole world seems wild, chaotic, random and unpredictable. Perfection would be the only safe bet, whatever that might be. It does seem to be a ready and unattainable aspiration, even a mandate, for many. It is also a great way to perpetuate self-hatred and shame and a chronic belief that “I am not good enough.” Never will be. 

Truly Lethal Failure

In the wee hours the other day, I happened on an interview with Amy Edmundson, professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, who formally studied specifically medical mistakes. Inspired by a woman whose nine-year-old daughter had ’‘needlessly” died of leukaemia due to avoidable medical errors by hospital personnel in the little girl’s care. Edmundson’s findings were chilling. She found that in the US, on average, 200,000 patients die each year as a result of medical errors. The study prompted her to probe further: how could this happen? 

Edmundson discovered five major causes of medical error: the task was too hard; the practitioner was unprepared or insufficiently prepared; uncertainty; experimentation and sabotage. I began to reflect on the hapless child of neglect, thrust into too many situations where, due to abandonment or prematurely having to resort to self-reliance, is faced with tasks that are too hard or that they are insufficiently prepared or oriented for. Of course, they will be uncertain, faced with challenges they have no idea how to complete, inevitably falling down on the job, at least some of the time, with perhaps dire consequences, or perhaps reprimand or even punishment. Of course, the danger of a misstep becomes a kind of nightmare, something to be feared or avoided at all costs. Experimentation or sabotage might become a reaction to the response they get, or not. 

I remember hearing bellowed at me: “Your mother was shaking like a leaf!” Or “You are driving your mother to an early grave!” for being late or some other potentially worrisome infraction. Of course, perfection seems like some kind of insurance- that or escape. The lessons of forgiveness for falling short, let alone teaching moments to be able to do better next time, neither of those is likely to happen in the lonely, self-reliant world of neglect. How will a child learn? How will a child learn that it is OK, even natural, to be fallible and that life goes on?

Nature’s Design

It also occurred to me that errors are, in fact, nature’s design. In biology, we find the frequent appearance of mutations. Mutations are a change in the ordinary DNA sequence of an organism, in effect, an unintended defect in the process of replicating itself. Sometimes mutations can be problematic, even lethal, like cancer. However, others are a source of developmental change, evolution, an improvement on the known and practiced sequence, or simply a surprise. Prior to 1954, “research” showed that running a mile in less than four minutes was an impossibility, beyond the capacity of human physiology, until Roger Bannister in Oxford, UK, shattered that prior scientific principle. And nature has evolved ever since as faster and faster times have been clocked in the decades between then and now. Mutation, in effect, another word for error, can, in fact, amount to progress. Not always, of course! Sometimes, it can be deadly, inconvenient, or destructive. But perhaps not something to be categorically dreaded! Maybe mistakes are a fact of life.

And similarly, “perfection” is not always insulation against sanction, misfortune or injustice. I recently learned the story of Jim Thorpe, an extraordinary athlete from the First Nation Sac and Fox Tribe of Oklahoma, USA. Thorpe went on to compete in the 1908 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, in track and field. 

Thorpe was about to compete in the decathlon (10 events) and the pentathlon (5 events) when, at the last minute, it was discovered that his shoes had disappeared were perhaps stolen. His coach scrambled and found two mismatched shoes that were not his, one of which was not even his size. He had to put two socks on one foot; neither fit him right. But fearless, Thorpe went out to compete and took the gold in all the events.  In effect, perfection in the 15 challenges, cleaning up the gold medals.  Unheard of. And in those shoes!

When Thorpe mounted the podium to receive his medals in the award ceremony, the King of Sweden proclaimed, “Jim Thorpe, you are the greatest athlete in the world!” to which Thorpe shyly replied, “Thanks King!” 

However, even such history-making perfection would not inoculate a poor native from racism, opportunism and tragic injustice. Thorpe’s medals were stripped when it was discovered that he was not purely amateur. A couple of summers, he had played minor league baseball for $35.00 a week to help cover his paltry expenses. He was only doing what almost all of his colleagues were doing, including peers Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. However, most of them were playing under false names, and Thorpe did not bother to change his name. It was 75  years later, in 1983, that his medals were restored. By then, he had long since died, impoverished and alcoholic. Perhaps perfectionism is a lost cause. Life is replete with ironies and opposites. It is hard to keep sight of this when we feel inundated in the despair, loss and grief that are so often the lingering bequest of trauma and neglect. I take solace in the words of Cuban poet Jose Marti:

Todo es hermoso y constante, 
Todo es música y razón, 
Y todo, como el diamante, 
Antes que luz es carbón.

Everything is constant and beautiful,
Everything is music and reason,
And everything like the diamond,
Before being light is coal.

Today’s song (In loving memory of Pablo Milanes, who died almost exactly one year ago):


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