A Messy Life

January 28, 2021
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Let’s talk about the word “perfect.” 

If we’re honest with ourselves, we aspire to perfection. We want the perfect relationship, children, test scores, grades, and successful careers. We strive to be the best mother, daughter, husband, and son. We want it all (whatever that means) and even feel a little cheated by life if we don’t get it. Media messages reinforce this pursuit of perfection. We see airbrushed photographs on magazine covers, all filled with product advertisements assuring us of the whitest smile, most flattering jeans, and the fail-proof diet that will make us beach-body ready. 

Whew. 

Perfection is exhausting. I know: It’s a word that has been at the center of my life for as long as I can remember. In fact, I spent the first half of my life trying to be perfect. Since then, I’ve worked just as hard not to be perfect. 

But what does the word actually mean?

In Latin, the word for perfect is perfectus and means “to finish.”

In Greek, the word is teleos, meaning “completeness.”

The word perfect means… we’re done. We don’t need to strive to be better, do better, create more, or, in fact, do anything. We couldn’t BE any more than we are because we are complete. We have arrived.

Not a very exciting existence, when you think about it.

We all know as long as we’re breathing, we are not done. We are here to learn and grow and become our best selves. We won’t do that by hiding behind an illusion of perfection and fearing we’ll be exposed if we’re somehow less than perfect. We do that by embracing something else: an artfully messy life which includes another dreaded word: mistakes.

So how do we rethink mistakes?

Not-So-Great Expectations

We can start first by looking at our expectations in life.

A while back, I was counseling a couple, and the wife kept saying she was unhappy in her marriage. She actually wanted to leave her husband. We talked at length, and I was puzzled because when she talked about her marriage, she wasn’t really unhappy. We went back and forth, and I finally realized she had an idea of what the “perfect” marriage should be—and her reality didn’t reflect that expectation. When she let go of that elusive expectation, she became more aware of how much she really had. It was a rich life that might not be the standard “Ozzie and Harriet” existence, but it was, in fact, more rewarding and full of love. 

The Good Mistake

I suggest we should abandon our expectations of perfection and, instead, expect a messy life filled with mistakes. We can even welcome those missteps. We should expect failure as we try new hobbies, professions, sports, or even recipes. We can even celebrate them! If we want to achieve anything new or different, we will err as we hone our craft. Even those people with an immense amount of innate talent —say, someone like musician Elton John, who from an early age could play the piano by ear without a single lesson—still need to practice, hit a wrong note, mix up the verse and bridge, in order to become an even better musician. 

I’m not saying it’s easy. It can be difficult to welcome errors with open arms and not take them personally. In fact, we can mistakenly regard mistakes as permanent failures. They feel irreversible. They cause shame or regret. That gives mistakes a lot of power to make us miserable! I suggest we look at our errors and, instead of shaming ourselves, accept where we are and recognize they’re a necessary part of a life of exploration and growth. 

Then we can ask, “What have I learned from this?”

Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well. – Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield 

Stanhope’s quote is often repeated, but I prefer a small tweak: “Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing poorly, badly, inexpertly.” After all, it’s the trying and failing that leads to success.

Kabbalists say energy is never wasted and never dissipates. My mother-in-law, Karen Berg, once wrote: “The only thing in this universe that does not diminish is energy. In its raw form, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Whatever we put out in terms of energy is what we can receive back.” We need to put our energy into becoming our best selves, free of fear of making mistakes. This may result in what might look like a “messy” life, and that’s not just okay, that’s preferable.

Ego No More

The mistake is, ironically, in how we view mistakes. We can let our ego overrule the lesson and berate ourselves, saying, essentially, “What an idiot I am.” That thought only serves to shame you (maybe over and over) and does nothing to help you to grow. Kabbalists believe none of us experience something that we didn’t need to experience. Our mistakes exist to guide us so that we act and do something different in the future. We grow nearer to our best selves.

For someone who purports to like order, this is admittedly a push-pull struggle for me. Over the holidays, my husband, Michael, and I went on a date night on a freezing evening in New York City. We talked about the idea of what a messy life looks like. It’s interesting for me to think about this subject because, as a Virgo, I love my lists, plans, and order. I like getting from A-Z in my day; it gives me a sense of accomplishment. At least, that’s what I think I like. But, as I told him that night, I’ve learned that when I approach my life that way, when I am planful and methodical, I tend to be less happy. There’s no room for mistakes or learning when I grow rigid in my plans. I think I want my lists and order, but the truth is, when I have my hands in too many things, when life gets messy, when I’m a bit all over the place, I actually feel the most free, liberated and creative.

I recently read Beth Berry’s blog, “Life Is Meant to Be Messy (You’re Not Doing It Wrong),” and felt an immediate connection when she wrote about her difficult year. Her family recently moved back to the United States, where she and her husband started new and separate businesses (at the same time). They’re adjusting to life in their new town and working on their marriage. Life felt unbearably difficult and not the way it should be lived. Certainly not perfect. Then she realized that although it was truly messy, “our growth was off the charts.” I experienced the same when we moved our family of six from Los Angeles to New York more than seven years ago.

She concluded that the mess she disdained was just life in action.  The pervasive myth that we’ll finally be happy after we get our lives in order is “simply another disempowering cultural story. A story that has an entire generation of humans (and particularly mothers) feeling bad about ourselves, scrambling to ‘keep up,’ and futilely spending billions in attempts to find solace.”

So I suggest we relegate the idea of perfection to some dustbin of archaic goals. Instead, let’s elevate and cheer for the noble mistake, the error that resets our lives, helps us grow and learn, that brings us closer to the people we are meant to be. And closer to the Creator.

Rethink Moment: What mistake in your life are you grateful for? What mistake, in hindsight, was actually a blessing?


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