Monthly Archives: July 2013

Good Girl Syndrome

I wish I wasn’t a straight-A student.

There, I said it.

It’s not the school, of course, it’s just one more symptom of the “Good Girl Syndrome.” By the Good Girl Syndrome, I’m not referring to the Mary Ingalls good girl, who is good and saintly and has golden curls; I’m referring to the Laura Ingalls good girl. She feels responsible for Mary–and Carrie, and Ma, and Pa. In fact, she feels responsible for nearly everything, including being responsible FOR being responsible, all the time. She thinks maybe she would like to go play catch with the boys and have fun, but that wouldn’t be proper. Occasionally, she does get caught up in a “whirl of gaiety” and reaps the consequences of her final grade being “only 96.”

It really is a bit like a disease, and though I’ve been afflicted for probably forever, I’m only now being able to start putting into words what I mean. It’s easiest for me to talk about it and describe it through the lens of school grades, but it isn’t about school and it isn’t about grades; it’s about me, and it seeps in and permeates everything. It’s dreadful.

When I first started going to school, I thought it was only responsible to be dutiful and work hard and do your best. You ought, you know. So I did, but when those high scores kept rolling in, it stopped being about the responsibility to put the effort in, and somehow eased it’s way more into identity. I have to get A’s, because I have get A’s.

Getting A’s wasn’t important, and I knew it. I was embarrassed by getting A’s with–let us be honest, because honesty is important–relatively little effort, while my classmates struggled with the work. I didn’t look down on them; I mostly tried to be oblique and underplay my grades–not to refuse to answer if someone asked, but to not bring up the fact that, yes, the test you almost failed was not hard for me. There was no shame–I wasn’t at all dishonest when I told people that they did good when they got an 83%. What’s wrong with an 83%? An 83% is perfectly acceptable.

For them. But not for me.

It was an insidious little double-standard, wherein I had to be held to a higher level than them, because I was me. I was a different, better, other, who was expected to perform at above excellent–but people shouldn’t hold themselves to that level. Meanwhile, since I continued to mute my grades, I still clung to the idea that I didn’t look down on them at all, because–don’t you see? I don’t care what grade they get. I don’t lord my grades over them. I just. . .think I’m good enough to have perfection as my standard, and they’re, you know, human and shouldn’t be so hard on themselves.

So on one hand there is this, ohh, smug superiority, I suppose, that I’m to be judged by a different standard. But there is also this great level of insecurity–which one can’t talk about, because how can the straight-A student say, “Ohhh, I feel so insecure!” without being taken out behind the school and stoned? You, insecure? You, who seem more like a teacher’s assistant, an instructor, not a student? One time I told someone frustratedly that even though I got good grades, I was still human. I don’t know if they got it or not. I don’t know if I got it or not.

But the insecurity is two-fold. On one hand, it becomes part of you. I have to get good grades, because I have to get good grades. Giving up on good grades would be like giving up on part of yourself. Giving up on working hard, and being dutiful, and being responsible and leading the class–it would be like your eyes changing color. That’s just who you are, how could you NOT? I am the over-achiever. I am the nerd. I am the one who excels at whatever she puts her hands and head to. It would be like–being a totally different person. It would be like an apple tree growing pears. I have to do this, because this is what I do. I can’t not do it. Not without not being me, and I have to be me.

On the other hand, and perhaps less subtly, is the realization that there is no way to go except for down. If you usually get B’s and occasionally get A’s–how exciting to get A’s! How exciting when you find you are getting mostly A’s and a few B’s! How you’ve grown–how you’ve improved! How you’ve succeeded, how you’ve achieved, how you’ve accomplished! But when Good Girls get more A’s–again–no one need remark, because you’ve always gotten A’s and will likely always get A’s. And as for you, you have no risk of improving; only the cloudy awareness that you could always get worse.

One of the times I most starkly remember this dilemma is when I made a birthday present for my grandmother’s significant birthday. It was a basket, one of the first I’d made. It came out very well, if I do say so myself, and I was very proud of my efforts. It was a new skill, and I’d worked hard to make it for her–anticipating her delight, and surprise, and shock and awe. I was maybe 13 years old. Right before my grandma opened it, my mom announced I had made it–to which my grandmother replied, “Well, we all know already that she can do anything.”

I think she meant as a compliment, but it totally deflated me. I was impressed with my creation, but everything I did would be considered commonplace, because that was what was expected of me. If someone else–someone who didn’t bear the title of being Good At Everything–had made that basket, then she would have been impressed. But since it was just me, well, you know, what else would I do? I could go down, but I couldn’t go up; and if I didn’t stay up, I wouldn’t be me, because I was always up.

If found since then that it has other problems, too. I get terribly tense when I’m trying to learn new things, because I have to do good. It’s not, oh, well, if you make a mistake, who cares? It’s not like B’s are okay. I can’t just do it. I have to do it well. I have to do it in the top of the class. I have to exceed. When I am sitting at home singing, and I’ve been singing long enough to forget the whole house can hear me, I relax and my voice improves. Then I go to my singing lesson, and try to sing for my instructor. She tries to explain how if I relax, my voice will sound better; I understand what she’s saying (after all, I’ve heard it myself at home), but the emotional part of me also hears the rebuke. You’re doing it wrong. You aren’t doing it good. Do it more good! And so, I tense myself with the effort of more good, until by the time I leave the half hour session I can barely find any note and I’m tense from my scalp to little toes, never mind my vocal cords and my throat and my lips.

I also leave utterly discouraged, because I didn’t get the A. What A? There was no A. My classes aren’t graded and my instructor doesn’t care. But I should have improved. I should have victored. I should have exceeded all expectations. I should have been able to blow that song out of the water; I should be able to sing so well that my instructor can only count me as her peer.

People say, “You’re so hard on yourself.” It makes me feel so frustrated, because it’s like asking, “Why are you hungry? Why does it hurt when you stub your toe? Why do you feel cold when it’s wet and the wind blows?” This is just–myself. I don’t know any other way. I don’t know how to get B’s, but I think I rather wish I did. It would be better to laugh and relax, but I don’t know how to make myself, and I don’t know how to fail.

It’s a very scary thing when you consider your problems. . .your arrogance, and your pride, and your imagined self-sufficiency, and your smugness. You look at them all from a little bit of a distance, and you say to yourself, “My goodness, this person needs to fail. This person needs to fail, and fail, and fail until they finally learn what failure is and how to do it and what really matters and how to let go of this silly idea that they can be Good, by Working Hard.” It’s very hard to have a candid conversation with God and say, “You know what? I think part of my problem is that I’ve never really had to accept what I failure I am in this life, save by Your grace. It’s too easy for me think it was my fault for all of those A’s, because I worked hard, not because, for whatever unfathomable reason, You decided to give me those grades.”

It really is silly, too. By the end of my first two years of school, I was handing in random papers instead of the assigned work and refusing to study for tests, and still randomly getting A’s. The teacher would accidentally have a duplicate sheet on the test, and so would give everyone in the class all those problems a full grade for free. I would show up for class unprepared and the test would be rescheduled. It was the oddest, queerest thing. Even after I decided the school system had so poisoned my soul I didn’t care if I failed the rest of my tests, I kept getting these A’s. I don’t remember what I did for the last two years of school online, most of my work having been done in a near drunken haze of emotional and physical exhaustion–but I did get A’s.

And I still have the audacity to whisper to myself, sometimes, when I don’t think I’ll notice, that I’ve been working so hard. Immediately, I try to squash the thought out, pretend it never existed, correct it. No, no, they were given to you. For some reason, some reason I can see no fruit whatsoever from yet, God has been giving you a 4.0 GPA. Not you.

You can’t keep going on like this, you know. Someday, you will fail. Then you’ll be just like everyone else. Is that scary? Failing is always scary, isn’t it? But if I could just fail and get it over with–it would be a relief to be like everyone else! To get B’s and a few A’s. To not expect myself to out-sing the instructor. Maybe God could fail you gently, so it wouldn’t sting so much, and then let you free. . .

But what I think–what I really think–is that probably the answer is no. Really–even if it is just the continuance of absurd arrogance–really I don’t think I will be allowed that kind of failure or that kind of freedom, and I expect I’ll probably spend the rest of my life struggling with that driving force named passion on the right and perfection on the left. Passion that can be used to give life to many good things, and perfectionism that can stand in the way of many good things.

I don’t want to give up my passion; I do think it is a gift, if at times an unruly one that most be constantly re-directed toward it’s rightful source. But I’m tired of the perfection. The perfection that is afraid to even try, for fear of failing. The perfection that says, “You need to try harder! Harder! You aren’t quite good enough yet, but if you just tried harder. . .”

No, I can’t. I could be accepted, but it’s not dependent on being perfect, or on failing, or on trying hard. I could reflect the true light, not my own false glimmer, but it wouldn’t be by trying so hard to reflect. One thing that sometimes drifts across my mind and then slips away is that Satan’s first sin was thinking he could be equal to God. Perfectionism, in a way, is just that–I could be perfect. Usually hastily addended with “not as perfect as God, of course!”–but of course not. Saying I want to nail everything perfect, without guilt or blame or lack or falling short in anyway–it is saying I want to be an equal to God and implies that I think I could be. If I just worked a little harder. And I know that isn’t the truth, but my actions aren’t bearing that out.

I hate that. I want to change that. I can’t.

I have an inflated view of myself, and when I catch just a glimpse of how inflated it is, I should like to bury it. Like not telling anyone that I got another A, lest they see how conceited I was. Like not talking about my plans or my dreams, for the ambitions and audacity they reveal. I shall be quiet and meek, but that doesn’t change what’s going on in the inside.

What’s going on in the inside is a weariness with being a Good Girl. But like Laura after she slammed her book, there is also the dreaded feeling that I will go on being a Good Girl, because I must. But I don’t like that feeling, either, and sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be reckless and daring. Perfectionism whispers, “You aren’t any good at that; you’re a coward. Better not to try, and expose your inability to even be reckless.” Passion murmurs back, “There are better things in life than you, Perfectionism. You’re a dry cloud, promise without delivery.”

And I stand in the middle, wondering how to be good at failing.

Thinking

I have been thinking, which is, actually, a good thing. It was one of the reasons I realized it was time for a break. When you’re too busy to think, you really are too busy.

I think about life, because life means something different to so many different people, depending on the time and place, the culture and the societal positioning. What people accept is largely based off of what they expect.

I am poor, but I am not poor. I am lonely, but not lonely. I care a lot about taking care of others, but I’m deeply self-absorbed. It all depends where along the sliding scale you put me. I see or hear people who pack up everything and move, and I think, I have too much stuff. But I worry about my stuff. About the noise my car is making and about my laptop dying. But does it matter at all? There’s always the third-world argument. Sometimes it’s hard not to wonder what I’d be like if all my “stuff” was stripped away. Would I be less anxious, if I didn’t think I ought to expect the perfect solution? If I realized that eating and sleeping were already two of the biggest gifts a person could have?

I tell myself it doesn’t really matter, because I am here, so here is where I am. But somehow it does matter, because God is everywhere, and where God is truly is important. Not the bubble of me. How do you get outside of the bubble of you, when you are wherever you go?

Part of what I struggle with is the understanding and belief that God is using me, and will use me. This sounds silly, maybe, given how when I just recently quit my job I had patients and past patients tearing up and telling me resolutely that they were happy for me. But it is true; vanities of vanities tends to catch up to me. It’s too hard, often, for me to remember that if God is everywhere, that includes right here. Even when that bubble seems to envelope me, and I can’t seem to hear anything but my own pulse throbbing in my ears–God is still there, working. Working, and using me, even when I don’t realize I’m being used as a vessel of His grace. He doesn’t let us know ahead of time–“OK, get ready now, because I’m just about ready to use you!” It’s frequently in the subtle things that we don’t even realize we’re doing: the smiles to random strangers, the “just doing my job” times, the listening when someone speaks.

Be we–or at the very least, I–are results driven. Okay, there, I did that. What did that accomplish? What happened because of what I did? Was it worth it? Should I do it again? Was it all a mistake? Did any good come out of that? Even results-driven in terms of planning. What is the point of that? What will it accomplish? Will the benefits outweigh the costs?

But I wonder if that really a valuable metric. If so often we can’t see the benefits of what we’ve done or where we’ve been, is attempting to measure the benefits any use at all? The obvious statement would be that there is no metric, but this feels too vague and undefined. Maybe there is some other metric with which to measure the worth of your decisions and life. But every metric I’ve seen is equally unsatisfying. They’re missing the point. What is the point?

Walking with God.

Where is God?

So I see myself subconsciously trying to make God more tangible. If the important thing is being with God, then let’s make God easier to hang on to, so we don’t get so easily side-tracked. It makes me realize how false religions are so easily started, because it can be so hard to hold on to something that isn’t tangible. I’m a hands-on learner. How am I supposed to learn about something, some One, I can’t put my hands on? You’re supposed to walk with God and talk with God, but you can’t see Him and can’t hear Him.

I complain, but I already know. How many times has God told us, again and again, to seek Him? That’s active, and that’s intense. It isn’t usually, “Look, admit it! I’m standing in front of you with a big, flaming sword. Helloooo? I’m right here!!!” Instead it is–Seek Me. Find Me. Search. Look. Ask. Be persistent. That always gets me. For some reason it really bugs me that God basically says, “Look, you have to nag. Don’t ask just once. Be like the widow. Pound on the door like the guy at midnight.” I mean, it’s encouraging that I’m not doing something wrong when I don’t get an answer as soon as I ask. But it’s really frustrating all the same. Can’t we just, you know, deal with it like adults? Talk it over, agree on a course of action and move on? What’s up with all this pounding on the door stuff?

Here’s the thing. Sometimes people like to get together a monastery so they can better devote their time to concentrating on the God-ness. That’s faith, right? But God is all about loving people, so you go out into the world to love people. (That’s works, right?) But now there’s all that hustle and bustle and cares of this world, and sometimes it’s hard not to lose your steadfast gaze on God, and then everything falls to pieces. And we know we need both–faith and works, or faith showing itself by works–but it’s so hard not to try to find some kind of formula that will keep you on the straight and narrow. If you could just nail the right proportion of withdrawing quietly before God and going out into the world to be His ambassador, you could keep a razor-sharp focus on Him always. Right?

I know there is no formula, the same way I know I need this time of quiet. I only find myself looking for it because everything is so much easier if you can keep your eyes on God “with childlike simplicity.” When you’re busy marching around Jericho blowing on the horns, you can either stand there thinking to yourself, “What I am doing? Seriously, stomping around in a circle and making noise? Who am I kidding? Maybe I need a new plan. Maybe I need to be blowing harder. I guess maybe if there were enough of us stomping hard enough at one time, maybe it would cause a mini-earthquake. Let’s see, how many people would we need to get that going? If each footfall is approximately 80 pounds of force. . .”

Or you can say, “Dude! God has this under control, and I’m just here for the party. Let’s stomp around and make noise!”

I want to do the latter, but I’m nearly always doing the former. I can’t shake the feeling that there’s probably something more important to be done then stomping around and make noise (results-oriented, remember?) or else that I’m not stomping and making noise good enough, and that probably I should be doing it better. But other times, I get this other feeling. One that says I’m trying too hard, and I should just show up for the party. I should stand and watch God work, the way I used to watch adults working. Sometimes you could go and fetch them something, but mostly you just watched in fascination and tried figure out what was going on and how it was all going to work together and be amazed as everything came together. It was cool. It was kind of relaxing, sometimes. You felt like you were learning, but the world didn’t depend on you.

Sometimes I think we wish we had more of a bird’s eye view of what the heck was going on. But I think we imagine that angels have more of a bird’s eye view, and then it says the angels are busy watching us to learn what God is up to. So maybe the bird’s eye view is over-rated. I think maybe it is more in the attitude, as much as a results-oriented person finds that annoying. You can say, “Oh, God, please show me what You are doing and how you want me to be a part of it!” all angst-ridden. Or you can search out what God is doing just to enjoy what God is doing, without being worried that you’re going to screw-up God’s symphony by playing your triangle half a beat late.

I am finding that dwelling on the smallness of me and my reasons and my resources is getting me nowhere. God made me, He already knows my smallness and weakness, and that’s not the point. The point is His greatness and His reasons and His resources, and that they are to be sought and enjoyed. Both, together.

My patients would sometimes complain to me, “This isn’t easy!”

“No, of course not!” I would laugh back. “If everything was easy for you, you wouldn’t need my help and you wouldn’t be here!”

Sometimes I think we get mad that it’s so hard to seek God, but I don’t think He is under any impression that it would be easy for us. That’s why He tells us over and over again to do so; if it were easy, He wouldn’t have to encourage us to do it. The same with being thankful, or being joyful, or being still. God, why is it so hard to be still? But if it were easy for us to be still, He wouldn’t have to tell us. If it were easy to know that God was with us, He wouldn’t have to tell us, over and over and over again. We feel like we’ve failed when we can’t do those things, but we’re right where God knows we’re at. Yes, it is hard for you to be still. Let’s practice it. It will bear fruit. Yes, it is scary for you to trust Me. This is how you’ll learn that I love you, and I want you to learn how much I love you. So it is time to do scary things, and My love will drive out your fear.

I want to know what we’re doing, but what we’re doing is learning about God’s love. I want Him to make me into a better and better Martha (poor Martha; and if I held to patron saints, she’d likely be mine), and what He is saying is, “Honey, you’ve got it all wrong. I came here to do the work. You’re here to benefit from it. Come sit down and learn how much I love you, and stop trying so hard to impress me. I already know you; you need to come know Me.”

I’m climbing over the edge of the boat, but there’s an awful lot of wind and waves. Hold out Your hand, and keep saying my name over and over. . .and over. . .

Heave away, boys!

It was my day to take my two youngest siblings to their swimming lessons. There’s a pavilion near the chain-link fence surrounding the pool, so if you like you can sit on a picnic bench and watch the pool activities. I was keeping half an eye on my siblings–not because I feared for their safety, but rather their amusement. It was my idea to enroll them, and some guilty part of my conscious was afraid that in in the end I’d be responsible for a miserable experience.

The last fifteen minutes of the lesson is “free time” and anything goes. That, I knew. What I thought was that it would involve the instructors sitting on the edge of the pool taking a 15 minute break between classes, while the kids entertained themselves. What happened instead was the next time I looked up, I saw one of the instructors hurling one of the kids through the air into the deep end.

It was marvelous. No, really–it was. All the kids were lining up for their turn, and one by he was picking them up and chucking them in the water. He was laughing with every throw, and the kids were bouncing impatiently for their turn. In the shallow end, a similar scene was taking place; there, the instructor was tossing kids up out of the water so they could land with a splash.

The instant I saw the first throw, I was suddenly struck with a powerful memory–my older brother throwing us into the water. It was a little different. Here, the instructor was thoroughly tanned and children were landing in sparkling clear water. There, we had lined up on the grassy wall, all of us blindingly white, and flailed into water so muddy it stained your suit. But I remember–I remember being scared to lose control and go flying through the air. I remember being told to cover my nose, and obligingly doing so–only to switch to covering my ears mid-flight. What? I hated water in my ears worse than water in my nose. I remember, though, the feeling of flying through the air, and the surprisingly safe descent into the warm water. The first time was terrifying. After that, it was pure exhilaration.

The memory was a happy one, but it was nearly eclipsed by feeling of–joy? Gratitude? I am nearly positive the young men throwing boys and girls through the air didn’t have siblings that age. I am just as certain the kids didn’t have siblings old enough to throw them. But what made me happy was how much they were enjoying it. The instructors weren’t doing their job; they were having fun. They were truly enjoying the younger kids.

I just felt so–oh, I don’t–relieved, I suppose, to see the delight within the age disparity. I’ve known it, and know it still, but so often it seems like some rare phenomenon that most people can’t comprehend. This afternoon, all was right.

“This is how I go, when I go like this.”

I’m having trouble writing, lately, but it’s not writer’s block, exactly. It’s just that every once in a while I get seized by a strong sense that I’m only adding to the terrible problem of word pollution, and I ought to do my duty for all of humanity and be quiet.

I have plenty to say, but I lose nearly all faith that any of it is worth hearing. One time I read a description of someone mocking the large landscape of the Internet with the not so mild rebuke that all anyone had to say nowadays could be succinctly summed up in the phrase, “This is how I go, when I go like this.” It stung, not because I disagreed with it, but because it cut so close to the quick. What else am I saying? Perhaps silence is a virtue. There is much wearying with too many words, and all that.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), this is balanced by something else I’ve heard oft quoted. I don’t remember the exact saying, but it was something along the lines that no matter what, you were still going to have to write a million words of complete garbage before you’d had enough practice to write anything of value–and I’ve seen the same principle applied to such things as musical instruments or any other skill honed largely by excessive amounts of practice (like walking, for instance).

So even while I dread coming here to write anything–it will be horrible–I continue to be drawn to write. It will be horrible, but someday—maybe when I’m 64 or maybe even 63–I’ll have practiced myself to a point that my words will be worth reading. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the dread of writing never really fades, because I suspect that (as again this could be applied to any art) an artist will never be fully satisfied. They will be instead always finding one more step on the golden ladder, and always much too preoccupied with “next” to spend much time looking behind.

I can come to terms with slogging. Sometimes there is nothing to do but do it; grit your teeth and wade through. The problem is, well, the innocent bystanders. The ones that have to hear you, practicing scales again. Missing your note again. Trying to reach those notes just out of your reach, again. The urge is to close the door, close the windows, and possibly not practice if there is anyone within a good half mile radius.

The problem with that is that I’ve also discovered that sharing your work is almost as much of a skill as improving the work itself. It takes guts to let anyone see or hear what you’ve labored over. It doesn’t do much good to practice enough you’ve amassed a certain amount of skill, and then promptly burn all your labors so no one will know. It’s been done, but it’s not the path I’d like to follow, and so that means subjecting people to scales and painfully trite writing. I’m sorry. Hopefully, in time, and with sufficient therapy, you’ll be able to move on.

Me? I already am. That’s why I’m here.