I don’t mean to boast, but if you know me, you would say that I’m pretty darned committed to doing things The Right Way.
Doing things properly is one of my favourite hobbies. Bonus points if I find the hardest possible way to do it properly (because the hard way is the proper way, of course).
If it weren’t blatantly obvious, this would be the moment in which I confess to being a consummate perfectionist. It’s not that unusual, especially in people who are fairly driven by nature, but I do want to own that I, more than most people I know, really dislike doing things wrong. So much so that I will often avoid doing something at all if I don’t think I can do it well.
Now, I’m not a perfectionist because I do everything perfectly. I wish. No really, I do wish. Trust me; almost nothing I do matches the expectation in my mind.
Being a perfectionist does not mean one does everything perfectly. You just want to do everything perfectly, and your expectations tend towards the unrealistically best outcome. A true perfectionist doesn’t believe she’s a perfectionist, because a true perfectionist would never feel like perfection had been achieved. It could always have been done better. That’s the whole damn irony of it.
I literally, actively and consciously decided to be perfect one average afternoon when I was about four years old. Enter a lifetime of expectation (mine), disappointment (also mine), and struggle (you bet—mine too). It’s a fascinating tale, she says, unbiased, but this is not that story.
Today’s story, children—”scootch in, get cosy”—is not a precautionary tale about the dangers of perfectionism. I am, however, writing a book on the topic, if I ever get it perfect done.
But today, we’re talking about taking risks, practicing trust and cleaning up messes.
We’re talking about loving people, and getting it right, which requires a willingness to get it wrong.
Loving people is like making art.
If you try to make careful, “right” art, you wind up with blasé hotel art that means nothing to anyone. It’s boring and forgettable. Or, worst-case scenario, you keep staring at a canvas that remains blank, because you’re too afraid to risk putting the wrong colour on it, and end up with no colour at all.
Art that matters requires something from its maker. It exacts a price and takes a toll. It starts rough, arises from confusion and makes a mess. Art gets everywhere.
I don’t know that there’s a right way to make art, but I’m pretty sure the only wrong way is to be so afraid of making art that people won’t like that you don’t make any at all.
The same goes for love. It requires vulnerability; the willingness to risk having it all go sideways, and the willingness to clean it all up when that happens.
The thing here is that if you’re so concerned that you might love someone the wrong way, you’re going to play it safe. And love isn’t safe, at least not for our hearts.
As C.S. Lewis said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
If you’re not willing to mess love up, you might be losing out on a whole lot of the love you want. The depth of love that you’re able to experience is directly proportional to the depth of vulnerability you’re willing to risk.
If you’re not willing to get love wrong, you’re probably not going to be willing to risk enough to get love right. This is problematic if a true, deep experience of love is what you’re seeking.
The problem here is mostly that you think there’s a “right” way to love, period. That the “right” way to love a person leaves everyone smiling all the time, and goes smoothly and never requires any cleaning up.
But that’s not love. That’s at best polite acquaintanceship. Maybe affection.
It’s like giving a gift certificate, because you weren’t exactly sure what the person wanted, but didn’t want the recipient to have to say so, or feel bad because you got the wrong gift. Gift certificates are nice, but they’re safe, too.
Love is trusting that the thing you said, or the gift you gave are perfect not because you know it’s right, but because you chose it from a place of love, affection and esteem.
Love is also trusting that if a gift or expression of love is not received the way you’d intended, your relationship is strong enough to handle an honest conversation to clear up any unintended consequences, thoughts or feelings.
Love is a connection deep enough to hurt, but trusting each other not to do harm, at least not on purpose. It’s assuming positive intent, and not taking the inevitable misinterpretations personally, even though you could.
Love is being honest, even when it would be easier to lie. It’s saying the thing, even when it’d be easier to say nothing at all, because you’re unwilling to let confusion, hurt or resentment fester at the expense of your relationship.
There’s nothing wrong with affection or polite friendship. But it’s not love, or at least not the deep kind that has space for you to show up fully expressed, as all of you, not just the appropriate parts.
I think most of us are longing for better art and more meaningful love. We want to be moved by it. We want to feel it. We want to know we can’t lose it, and that we can’t get it wrong.
Ironically, it’s the love you risk losing that is the safest, steadiest, hardiest and truest love there is. Love becomes clarified by leaning into the fire, not by avoiding it.
Love is only fragile if you treat it that way.