Imagine Being Loved Without Excelling
T.H. White was the author of the classic 1958 book The Once and Future King a masterful retelling of the saga of King Arthur. He also kept a personal dream diary in which he includes this psychologically telling reflection about himself: “[I] need to excel in order to be loved.”
When I came across this quote in the fascinating recent bestseller “H is for Hawk”, Helen Mcdonald’s poignant memoir focusing on grief and falconry, I had to stop and put down the book. “Wow,” I thought, “This is the message we are sending to our children”! They need to excel in order to be loved.
Garrison Keillor parodied this expectation in his classic description of the mythical town of Lake Woebegone, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.“
Every December and January, I receive “family newsletters” in the mail from people I rarely hear from the rest of the year. They are full of stories of academic achievements, athletic accomplishments and successful personal milestones. Excellence is assumed. Apparent perfection, it seems, is expected, the new norm against which overstressed parents and overscheduled children measure their lives.
Now, in some classrooms, perhaps to counter this pressure, children are taught meditation (before the next round of testing), and adult mindfulness retreats are becoming increasingly popular. This response, it seems to me, misses the point.
In 1953, Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, coined the term “the good enough mother” describing a parenting style which allows children to make mistakes, manage challenges on their own and develop coping skills. A ‘good enough’ parent doesn’t expect perfection from a child, but understands that experience is a good teacher, that errors are opportunities for clarification and correction. A “good enough” community would do the same, accepting our diversity of views and approaches to the demands of life, celebrating creative attempts to deal with problems and understanding that excellence is not a prerequisite to love.
Imagine if, as adults, we shared the strategies we used to meet the challenges of the year in an annual family newsletter. Imagine what would happen if we dared to admit that we were imperfect, but explained how we grew emotionally and interpersonally as a result of confronting those imperfections. Imagine being loved without excelling.
A lesson from one traditional culture: When one looks closely, it is clear that most old Navajo rugs have imperfections in their weaving: mismatched patterns or, to the Anglo eye, a surprising lack of symmetry. “Oh, look”, we might say, “There’s a mistake in that rug!” No, it’s intentional, consistent with the belief that humans are not perfect, and that it is hubris to think we are.
From another culture: in Jewish tradition, the concept of sin is not about absolute perfection, but rather about “missing the mark.” “Missing the mark” assumes that we know where to aim, that we recognize an error, and that we will use the feedback from that recognition to help us improve our aim.
Let’s think, this year, about celebrating how we deal with our normal blunders, rather than pretending to be perfect.
August 11, 2020
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