“No man is an island…” begins John Donne’s well-known poem simply titled Meditation XVII. I first read Donne’s works in high school when I was forced to by an English teacher who knew better what was good for me than I would have cared to admit back then.
The selection was included during a unit on English poets who we were studying. For whatever reason, British prose never caught my attention, (much to the chagrin of my older brother who would sometimes criticize my decisions to read modern American fiction…we led a bit of nerdy childhoods at times…) but Donne’s declaration has always struck with me.
I found the statement ‘no man is an island’ to be challenging. Growing up in an area of the American Midwest which has and continues to be shaped by generations and generations of Protestant self-efficacy, I felt to need the support of others was akin to admitting to defeat. I would blaze my own trail with or without the support of others as my own self-inflated view of my strong work ethic would allow me to function without the need of others (it’s fair to say I was also wholly unaware of the factors outside my control such as my gender, race, educational opportunities, family supports, etc. that heavily contributed to any success I’ve had ‘blazing my own trail’.)
Then, I met the woman who I would eventually marry. I quickly realized living on the self-centric island of my own ego I had created was not where I wanted to be. We dated, broke up, dated again, married and now have been together for more years of our lives than years apart. As we have walked through our lives together, she’s been a constant source of grace and encouragement. And, in a probably less romantic but still tremendously helpful to me role, she’s always been my editor.
In college, I always asked her to read my papers because she usually graded harder than my professors. I knew if I could get a paper by her with minimal red marks, then I didn’t need to worry much about my final grade. Now, she reads every article I write for this site, all the boring technical writing I do for the Raising Up Dads program model and anything else that may come up that I could use a second set of eyes on to make sure what I have written is true to what I’m trying to say.
A few weeks ago, after editing Mister Rogers Got It, she remarked that there seemed to be a theme of combating perfectionism in a healthy way running through it in the last few articles I had posted (You’re Doing A Good Job! and The Jealousy of Good Things.) She asked me if that was intentional.
It wasn’t, but she wasn’t wrong. To me, those articles were merely responses to random thoughts I had had or situations I had observed. There was no deeper insight into myself to be gleaned (or at least I wasn’t aware of any deeper insight to be gleaned.) But, as I considered what she said and re-read what I had written, I realized there was truth to what she had seen.
That is, I have always been a perfectionist. It’s been easy for me to deny because I am not a perfectionist in the stereotypical way (i.e. My desk is never well-organized and tidy, I don’t get upset if a plan doesn’t quite come together in the way I wanted, I don’t expect others to be perfect, etc.) But, I have always had extremely high standards for myself, standards that I know I will never attain but to which I still strive anyway. Usually I can reasonably manage my perfectionist desires, but when I am stressed, overwhelmed or experiencing significant life change, my perfectionism is at its most destructive. I put tremendous pressure on myself to not miss a step. For whatever reason, not only can I not allow myself to fail, I can’t allow myself even the possibility that failure even exists.
A few weeks ago, I was in the office trying to write some curriculum after working with clients all day. I was exhausted so I asked a colleague who is an amazing clinician, how she balances switching gears from meeting with clients to doing more detail-oriented, monotonous work such as paperwork. Her answer: “I don’t, I go home and do it the next day.”
Her answer struck at the root of what my wife had observed in what I had been writing. She recognizes the limits to what she can reasonably do in a day’s work. If something doesn’t get done, she’s okay with it because she knows there’s always another day. In the moment, I struggle to recognize my limits or accept that I can’t do it all.
Over and over again in my life, I return to a pattern of wanting to be John Donne’s anti-man who lives solo on an island of his own making. However, I am learning having others in my life is vital to stopping this pattern (and other potentially destructive patterns of behavior.) We need each other, and as much as I would like to think I can go it alone, life is teaching me this is just not true. I am also slowly learning that life is actually better together anyway.