As a young(er) adult, a series of events convinced me that I was not very good. I don't really feel the need to explain why or how this happened, but the end result was a constant feeling that I needed to work harder at being good.
Looking back, I want to shake that incarnation of myself, because guys, I was so good. I earned good grades, I worked hard and dutifully at my part-time job. I tried to be nice and kind to my loved ones. I visited my elderly great-grandpa of my own volition and I spent Spring Breaks on service trips to inner cities. Beyond that, my heart was good. I was earnest and trusting and passionate. I was flawed, certainly, but I was good.
But my heart didn't believe it, so year after year, I worked harder and harder to achieve goodness.
But when an already good person wants to be good, sometimes the next step is to forget good and aim for perfect.
I subconsciously set up a rubric for goodness and perfection. Perfect people were busy. Perfect teachers came to class every day with amazing lesson plans, and quick response times for entering grades. They were never tired and let their students watch a YouTube documentary when they were too exhausted to teach. Perfect people were good Mormons with clean houses, callings for serving the church, and perma-happy families. Perfect people were good.
Most importantly, however, perfect people were liked. They didn't get in disagreements with people. They didn't cause problems, and if conflict arose, a perfect person knew how to conduct herself so that in the end, everyone was happy because good people make other people happy.
Everyone would be happy as long as I was good.
Fortunately, at some point, I met someone kind and genuinely good (although not perfect,) who taught me to let go of my very rigid standards of perfection. Who already knew I was good even when I didn't. I made a very good decision when I married him.
I felt my soul starting to relax into something happy. Not perfect, but happy. I embraced my inner type B personality instead of punishing myself for not being Type A. I remembered lines from my favorite Mary Oliver poem (I wrote about this poem in 2009 HERE,) and told myself daily that "You do not have to be good."
Recently, however, I've found myself in unfamiliar situations, and my uncertainty led me back to old habits. I once again felt like I wasn't good.
I had a baby and didn't know my own body anymore. So I watched the scale, hoping someday that the numbers would tell me I was good.
Discouraged by my attempts to balance work and life, I relied on teaching evaluations to tell me I was good.Bar graphs and measurements of "effective teaching" don't lie, right? Likewise, check marks at doctor's appointments for healthy babies don't lie. Good people have healthy babies.
I surrounded myself with good people, and told myself good people hang out with other good people, so I must be good. I must be good.
But good people don't get messages from people wanting to shoot them in the face for expressing their beliefs.
Good people don't get hate mail, period.
Good people don't make mistakes in expressing their beliefs. Because if their beliefs really were good, they would know how to handle everything and everyone....wait for it...perfectly.
The more I tried to be perfect, the more anxiety I felt. I made mistakes and used them as evidence to prove that I didn't deserve to be involved in things I cared about because I could not do it perfectly. Some people were upset at how I handled situations, therefore I must have done something horribly wrong. I must be a bad person.
A while ago, I let myself take a pretty horrific verbal beating from someone online. I felt discouraged and upset, and convinced that I deserved it because good people don't have people get angry at them.
I read each line and in my head I imagined a t-ball stand. I don't know why I imagined anything having to do with sports because lord knows I am not a gifted athlete (perfect people are probably good at sports.)
But I imagined a t-ball stand and every time this person said something new on how badly I screwed up, I imagined them swinging the bat and hitting the ball into space. And every time I would bring them a new ball, and let them hit it again. Somehow that ball was me (here's where my metaphor gets confusing, but stay with me,) that ball was me and I was getting the shit knocked out of me. But good people know exactly how to defend themselves, so I kept putting the ball back on the t-ball stand.
Until I realized something: Good people don't do that to other people.
Afterward, I let myself remember what it felt like to be happy. I remembered Mary Oliver, and that I don't have to be good, I just "have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves."
I remembered my favorite line from John Steinbeck's East of Eden, "And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good."
More importantly, now that I don't have to be perfect, I can be happy.
A few weeks ago, my students wrote a district evaluation essay in which they analyzed "My Symphony," a poem by William Ellery Channing. I've had that poem in my head ever since, encouraging me "To study hard, think quietly, talk gently/act frankly, to listen to the stars, birds, babes,/ and sages with an open heart, to bear all cheerfully,/do all bravely..."
Channing never tells me I need to be good, or that I need to be perfect.
But learning to listen with an open heart, bearing all cheerfully and doing bravely? That sounds so much better. That reminds me of a person I was, and a person I can be again.
And that sounds really, really, good.