Tag Archives: ACIM and perfectionism

Chapter 4: Still Trying to Make the Grade–in Life?

I think we plan our lives before we are born.  If so, given that I have always spent much time in thinking about what I should do next, I’m sure I planned carefully on the Other Side.  I once had an intuition that my growing-up years went just as intended.  I wanted to emphasize working hard on academic pursuits and developing the impetus to achieve.  Now when I question the advisability of all that, surely some balancing act is taking place.

All of us enter life with a script that is filled with challenges and hurdles meant to build character in the highest sense possible.  But, as Wordsworth says, we forget about this intention (“. . .Shades of the prison-house begin to close/ Upon the growing Boy, . . . .”

Consequently, we attend alumni reunions with a bright smile, making conversation that lies about a successful life with rarely a cloud in the sky.  Instead, we should drop our masks and admit that life has been tough.  After all, we planned it that way—each and everyone of us.

On the instinct for acquisition:  “Recently I had the intuition that if money is viewed as security, one can never have enough.  It has taken me years to understand that.  The intuition came in the day or so after I had felt the internal question:  ‘Do you want a lot of money?’  That excited me, and I said a tentative, ‘Yes—if it doesn’t hurt anybody.'”

But later I began to think that this was a “devil’s” bargain re biblical injunctions:  “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”  Now I think my great-grandmother’s quiet answer about money is best: “The Lord has blessed me.”  She had no money worries, but her financial security was certainly not a preoccupation for her.  The instinct for acquisition makes it hard to go God’s way.

We are our own worst enemy.  We do not have to do all things, even if all of these things are good.  Sometimes I entrap myself over a perceived “good goal” by taking steps to move toward it—knowing all the while that living out the goal will be painful.

There is an old expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  But I am always trying to make “it” better.  Isn’t this being too much of a perfectionist?

Achieving at my maximal level has long been a goal.  I don’t like to be defeated by anything, to drop out of the race without trying sufficiently.  An old “Father Knows Best” television program drove the point home to me while still very young (and aren’t we quite impressionable when young?).

I sense I could do library administration, albeit not without struggle.  Do I want to be one who, as Milton says, “slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat”?  Yet Milton’s famous passage also suggests that one would know good “by” evil, by the contrast.  This I don’t believe is necessary.  Maybe now is one time that my doubts should be respected, because the ultimate goal, being ego-related, is questionable (as well as tangential to what I really want to do).  It’s a replay of a “have it all” 1980s motif—surely a way of life most of us are coming to repudiate.

I learned after long soul-searching that my interest in the status of a job (and all that goes with that false value), and my dedication to having an academic career mean that I am trying to prove something to somebody that doesn’t need proving.  “Going into work matters too much to you” was the message of a particularly symbolic and insightful dream.

For some reason I knew I needed to write a book.  And I did—one for my field of library science.  Did I need the discipline or did I need the credential?  Or did I need both?  My motive is hard to fathom.

The karma of being what is really “myself” seems very important.  It’s “karma yoga”:  Don’t try to be the best somebody else, but find “your” truth.  As I think over my career options, the little excitement that I feel over some of them appears to be something best not reinforced.  My thinking that I should head for library administration as a way of succeeding was to make the obvious “jump” to greater success in the eyes of the world.  Maybe a risk finally that is truly worth taking is not to make this jump.  I fall back on the obvious truth that strong doubts about a given pathway, over a long period of time, mean that that route is best passed by.  All in all, I’ve decided that I want a “pathway with a heart” much more than a pathway of dubious “success.”

Career success pursued for its own end has no end.

On excessive ambition:  “I think my questioning of whether I am successful or not is neurotic.  Wanting to be ever and ever more successful is neurotic also.  It is the rat race personified.  And when would I ever be ‘satisfied’ with what I had achieved?”

My journal is filled with evidence that striving for more, more, more doesn’t work for me.  Two examples:  “I realize I’m not as happy as I once was because I’m not as grateful for all the blessings that I have.  I’ve taken some of it for granted, and it becomes tedious routine, but also I feel stressed from the ‘busyness’ of it all.”

“Part of me feels that an active and busy life is evidence of a wise use of time.  But the truth is that I tend to lose my perspective.”

These attitudes seem frankly to be ego at work.

A Course in Miracles says, “. . .nothing you do or think or wish or make is necessary to establish your worth. . . .Your ego is never at stake because God did not create it.  Your spirit is never at stake because He did.”  I’m dangerously close to being “unhealed” as I try to heal others through my writing.

As I’ve sought to withdraw support from the ego, it has sought to win back strength by guile.  I’ve been making an image of myself as a fulfilled individual, but it is just that—a hollow image made without love as I pushed for “more.”  Not a pretty picture.

A town government official with many responsibilities discharged with praise once turned down a “better” job offer in a larger community by saying that one can “climb too high.”  One man’s version of the Peter Principle.

But how much better would we all be if overarching ambition never took us beyond our scope?  We would know mastery in a given sphere.  Our nerves would be calmer.  And wouldn’t the world be a saner place as well?  In high school, I found myself with a very critical mind whenever I had far too much to do.  This suggests that for me an overly busy life is not conducive to my better spirit.  Why don’t I remember this the next time I assume yet another task at home or job?

I used to be a real worrier.  When yet another good thing had happened, seeming to make the anxiety needless, my father simply remarked, “Most things do turn out well.”

Why all the anxious moments?  I have come to believe that it was a psychological ploy.  I didn’t think I deserved good things unless I had given my “pound of flesh.”  And if things did turn out badly, I had done all I could:  I had really cared enough to make myself miserable. The base of it was that anxiety proved to be a goad to make me work harder—and thereby increase the likeli-
hood that most things would “turn out well.”  A trap of perfectionism carried to pathological extremes.

It is not good for me to get too close to my work, lest I become obsessive about it.  I was virtually a workaholic in college, but without the “high” which true workaholics find.  In my case, I worked hard to make the grades for graduate school, and I worked with blinders on.  My mind was numbed by the hard work, my personality warped.

Now I listen to my nocturnal dreams.  A couple of nights of bad dreams, and I know it is time to “let up.”  God doesn’t need drudges.  He can’t get through to them and therefore to what purpose does all the hard work serve?

A personal assessment made on the anniversary of my first year as a reference librarian:  “I jumped on a horse and tried to gallop off in all directions at once.”

Certainly I took on too many varied responsibilities that year, but beginner’s enthusiasm is a great propellant.  It was a hard year.  Now, years later, I find in the experience compelling reason to ride out the storm.  The first hard step is not a good indicator of all the joy that may follow.  When you step into a pool, the water is always at first quite cold.

Just “being” in life is affirming and good.  I don’t have to “do” all the time.  I have to realize that doing “more, more, more” to justify my existence is not necessary.

Is taking the easier pathway always suspect?  Must we always struggle to be a “success”?

I invariably overestimate the time that it will take to complete a task that I have been putting off.

Learning how to work properly has been one of the hardest lessons for me to learn.  Faced with much work, I’m apt to feel great anxiety and be paralyzed by it.  Even a modest sense of “too much to do” will keep me working at a pace that is too fast, one I can’t sustain.

I do best when I consciously realize that there is more than enough time to do everything.  Then I work at a steady (but not slow) pace, and, most importantly, I enjoy the work.  My journal is filled with reminders to “pace” though the day.  Doesn’t this say to me that I ought to keep my duties always at a manageable level?

As much as I would like to turn out prodigious amounts of work, that is an instance of falling in love with the ordering process, a phenomenon I once heard in a warning dream.

I should know my own psychology counsels against this way of living unless the work is imposed from within (never from without), and there is little or no deadline pressure.

In rereading my prayer logs, I am struck by how similar my present-day requests are to past entreaties.  “Help me to carry out my job peacefully and without hassles continuously.”  There is a neurotic “always” to that quotation that is clearly pathological.  Better to move toward the positive in small increments.

If I have to work too hard at something, it may be the wrong “something”–timing off or whatever.  Usually, when the timing is right and the action right, a flow develops that makes the work come easily.

There is always time for what is needful.  This learned after long experimentation.  So why do I still fight fire when I have a desk filled with work, or a house that hasn’t been cleaned in a week?  What “bad thing” will happen to me if it isn’t all accomplished in the too-short time I have allotted?

Colds or “bugs” are a form of seeking outside ourselves, convenient crutches we use when we are very weary from walking in the world.  One then has an excuse to sit down.  Written a couple of days before I succumbed to a succession of mild but debilitating viruses:  “What do I really want to experience in my world?  I don’t want to be hassled constantly to do more-more- more.  I need to say ‘no’ to things for a month and then some.”

On the work complexities of modern life:  “I desperately need to learn how to pace myself.  If ever I get ahead at work, I immediately ‘fill my plate’ with a dozen things that are sure to swamp me eventually.”  Four days later, the dawn of a solution:  “I sensed today that I make things too hard.  I have too much a sense of responsibility.  I should let go and let God.  Life lived from mo-
ment to moment ‘listening’ (to the Holy Spirit) is much more interesting.  I can be much too work-oriented, so much that I become a drudge.”

Now I would add that much of my work is self-generated, but influenced by my colleagues, who are working at least as hard.  It is as though we were a group of children, backstage before a piano recital.  One’s nervousness and hyperactivity influences another, and then another, and yet another.  And to what end?  The dubious “achievement” of performing before an audience.  Now, proving our “worth” this way by more and more elevates work to a personal god whose demands are insatiable.  And isn’t that the clue that the dynamic is ego-based?

An experience in scholarly writing:  “I worked very hard last Monday, reading all day for my book.  I really didn’t enjoy it.”

Later on . . . .

”Most of that work was fruitless.  I didn’t put it in my book after all.  When work becomes a dull ache, it is usually wrong.”

On second-guessing my life’s work:  “What do I really want to do with the rest of my life?  Is it enough just to follow the Holy Spirit’s prompting on a daily basis?  Is long-range planning really a defense?  (A Course in Miracles suggests that it is.)  Could I do my writing as well as have a more successful library career?

The key to the latter would be ever-better interactions with the people I encounter everyday.  Sometimes I think the job of librarian really doesn’t accomplish much.  All of us work so hard on meaningless things; I see it all the time on the reference desk among the patrons, and I try to be tolerant.

Healing minds in the sense meant by the Course has really become my preoccupation.  Knowing that, is it any wonder that I’m still tied to my very social occupation even though I’d rather write?