Thursday, May 29, 2008

Now Where Did I Put That Internal Compass . . .

. . . because I feel deliciously lost.

Wednesday night, when I still thought I was going to be able to fall asleep at a reasonable (for me) hour, I sat with my notebook and pencil and scratched out my plan for June.

  • No rules
  • No shoulds
  • No guilt
  • No fear
  • No stress
I am easily inspired.  Inspired, not influenced.  Nothing is going to convince me that the 80s look of leggings and baggy tops deserves another go around, or that Fritos have suddenly become health food simply because they consist of only corn, corn oil, and salt (I like them though, and eat them about twice a year).  No, good ideas have to resonate with my own life philosophies before I take them on.

Or should I say, pile them on.  I attach myself to good causes like a velcro kid to his mommy's leg.  Independence Days? Check!  Riot 4 Austerity? Check!  Compacting?  Check!  Veganism? Check!  Traditional Foods?  Check!  Read an environmental book in May?  Check!  Buy Nothing in April?  Check!  Grow Your Own?  Check!  You get the idea.

There is nothing wrong with all of the challenges that float around in cyberspace, or come to us via books, newspapers, magazines, and public radio.  They are meant to be inspiring, and to bring about change.  They are, however, dangerous in the hands of a neurotic, guilt-ridden, anxious, empathetic, perfectionist (that would be me . . . I should note that I am especially kind to myself as well).

I have struggled with the desire to be perfect since I was a little, little girl.  I was the kind of child who was told not to touch, and never did again.  I was the straight-A honors student who played in the band, mentored Brownie Scouts, and babysat premature babies.  I never crossed out mistakes on my paper ~ I always started over.  By high school I was mildly anorexic.  (How can you be mildly anorexic?  You can shun food and at the same time know that it is stupid, thus never eating in front of other people but eating enough to avoid hospitalization ~ barely.) I boycotted McDonald's because the fish in their Filet-O-Fish sandwich had a by-catch that included seals.  In college I was a mess, unable to reconcile the effect of my existence on the planet and its inhabitants.  I became a feminist, a vegetarian, an environmentalist, an animal rights activist, a pacifist.

(Perfectionism isn't in itself a bad trait, or a good trait.  It simply is what it is, and is what you make of it.)

Tell me that animals have to live horrible lives and die terrible deaths to feed me, and I stop eating them.  Tell me that we're using more than our fair share of the planet,and I try to change my ways.  Tell me that conventional farming destroys the soil, and I go organic.  I have been one giant self-improvement project my entire life.

Caring is good.  Making changes is good.  Becoming despondent is not.  I can think about the recent deaths in Myanmar and China, and fall into the pits of despair.  I feel the pain of children starving in Haiti.  A friend's pain, physical or emotional, is mine (and J-Baby is the same way).

The issue, I think, is not that I feel things deeply (because I really think that is a positive thing), but that I have a deeply ingrained sense of guilt.  I want to make it all better, and when I can't, I feel terrible.  I count every misdeed, and hate myself for each one.  The problem is, there is no way to be perfect.  Perfection truly does not exist.

Guilt and challenges are external motivators.  Seen in simpler guise, such as fast food chains offering children rewards for behavior, grades, or reading, I reject them soundly.  But I keep jumping on the challenge bandwagon.  Oh, it seems fun at first.  Inspiring even, because I am going to make a difference and I have a built in support group to cheer me on and brag/confess to.  Except the first misstep sends me reeling: perhaps I am not worthy. Other people are getting by without refrigerators, why can't I?  Other people have huge gardens/homesteads and grow a significant part of their annual diet, why don't I?  Other people never buy jeans at Kmart, or buy new books, or succumb to the guilty pleasure of an In 'N Out Burger (protein-style ~ I still have to eat gluten free).  What the heck is wrong with me?

Several times in my life I have come to a place where nearly every decision is fraught with complications, and I freeze, the proverbial deer in the headlights.  I get stuck.  I stop enjoying life because it is too stressful and too hard.  We can need a quart of milk, and if I have to get into the car to drive the 4 miles to the store to buy what is acceptable to me in terms of ethics and health I will feel as guilty as hell because we didn't ride our bikes, and thus contributed to global warming.

I know this isn't a good way to live, and indeed that it is barely living at all.  So I shove it all out of my mind and that works for a little while.  I have cultivated the ability to be in the moment partially as a defense mechanism against the larger reality.  Lately I've been focusing on recognizing when I'm starting to fall into the quagmire, and I trying to stop the guilty thinking before it starts.

I have to accept that I am enough.   I can't do it all, I can't save the world, I can't stop the suffering that surrounds me, big and small.  But I do try to make a difference, and every little thing that I do is enough.

My internal compass is there, guiding me.  I ignore it often, and do get lost, going around in mental circles.  I need to pause, to find that space where I can let go of everything external and figure out what works for me in my very individual situation.  When I do that I come back to center, get my bearings, and set my feet to the spiral path once more.

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