Human Being vs. Human Doing–In Which I Encourage You to Do Nothing

Dear Lily June,

There’s a line in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that’s always stuck with me. In the novel, a pitiably shallow character, Daisy, is talking to her cousin, the narrator Nick, about her child. And she says to him about her daughter,

“I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

I don’t necessarily disagree with Daisy. In a country where ignorance is bliss and sex is money, perhaps the best thing for a girl to be is a “beautiful little fool,” at least if she wants to feel accepted, earn money, and have success, albeit for all the most superficial reasons.

But I wonder, given the course of my life as a not-particularly-attractive-though-not-hideous female scholar-type, what I might say in Daisy’s stead. And it would be something like this: I hope you’re a slacker, Lily. That’s the best thing a human can be in this world, an unmotivated, peaceful slacker.

***

Why would I, as your mother, say such a thing? Why wouldn’t I want to spur you to the American Dream: the formula that Hard Work + Drive = Success? Well, in part because I’ve lived out an American Nightmare of my own, and I know that success isn’t just hard-won at the hands of motivation and practice.

Sometimes it relies on, what some would call God-given and others the luck of, talent. Sometimes it relies on how well you’re able to network, making connections with the right people at the right time. Sometimes it depends on how many people’s backs you’re willing to use as stairs to the top.

Lily, I drove myself crazy with hard work, thinking my perspiration would result in inspiration, aspiration, and eventually admiration. But here I am, an everyday secretary, happy to be defined not by what I do anymore, but how I feel.

I achieved small measures of success on my rise to the top and then descent back to the bottom. I graduated from college with a (very measly) academic scholarship and a near 4.0 GPA. And that’s while working two jobs and commuting hours by bus to go to school at all. I was my department’s graduation speaker and went onto grad school puffed full of my own potential.

I got a 4.0 in grad school, and as a poet, achieved some (very meager) success: I was published in a dozen or so journals. I was anthologized in the Best New Poets collection. I won an Academy of American Poets prize.

And I earned my way into a teaching position where I was overworked, underpaid and miserable most of the time. Some people do a better job than I did at compartmentalizing their lives: keeping a work-life balance and devoting more time to their own writing than they do to their students’. This was not me.

Perfectionist that I was, I would pour over each pupil’s paper for a half an hour apiece, where most other professors devoted five minutes. When you have a hundred students, a half an hour per paper means fifty hours of grading each week. And that’s not including teaching. And that’s not counting office hours. Or the fact that I received a hundred new drafts every other week of a fifteen week semester.

I would get mired and bogged down in each comma splice and missing apostrophe. I would write long letters to my students about how to improve their skills that they wouldn’t even read. I would hold extra office hours and the hands of students going through personal crises I couldn’t imagine. I would answer emails into 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, helping my little brood of learners, hours before an exam, comprehend texts I knew they hadn’t even bothered to read. Some of them couldn’t even be troubled to buy the books.

And I got burnt out quickly, unable to shut off the mechanism in my mind that kept repeating that I must be perfect. I must be perfect. I must be perfect. I cannot fail. I wish now that I’d taken a page out of my students’ “books:” caring a little less, doing a lot less, slacking a lot more.

Herman_Melville_1860
I didn’t have the ability, like Herman Melville’s character of “Bartleby the Scrivener” (whom I taught my students about), to just repeat endlessly, “I would prefer not to.”

***

A mental illness isn’t defined simply by a distorted way of thinking or a warped set of perceptions (which I have in spades). If that were the case, then every quirky character in the country would be diagnosed with a disorder. No, these things take on the category of illness when they begin to impact your ability to live a reasonably comfortable life.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with motivation or hard work or striving to do your best. But when those mentalities and actions reach perfectionist proportions, crippling your ability to get through the day, you’ve gone from climbing the mountain to being crushed under it.

I want to say this started with my endless to-do lists, and the ways in which I couldn’t stop myself from scheduling every second of my day so that I never took a minute to just be, rather than do.

I didn’t want to become, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the woman whose forced idleness drives her mad.

But I know in looking back far enough, I can see my illness manifesting in early adolescence. I had this weird habit, my mother reminded me, to the way I’d put clean clothes away. Namely, I’d separate all items in my closet into categories (sweaters, blouses, pants, skirts, dresses), and then I’d alphabetize them by brand name. Surely this was just the ritual of a quirky kid, right?

But it gets weirder, and continues to this day, and this is the part I’m scared to admit because I know it will raise a few eyebrows (hopefully yours included). To choose my outfit for the day, I would engage in a bizarre ritual of using elementary children’s counting-rhymes. One goes like this:

Ocka bocka soda clocka, ocka bocka boo. In comes Uncle Sam, out goes Y-O-U.

UncleSamListensIn
I was not particularly patriotic, so I don’t know why this appealed to me.

I was so scared to make the wrong decision, to end up wearing the same portion of my relatively small wardrobe twice in a week, for instance, or choosing something that would reveal how uncool I was to my peers, that I stopped making decisions at all. I became like the character of Harvey Dent from Batman, who uses the flip of a coin to let all his life’s choices fall to fate. Or chance.

For some reason, doing this made me feel beyond reproach. I couldn’t make a wrong decision if I wasn’t making any decisions at all. It wouldn’t be my fault if things went awry: It would be the rhyme’s.

It didn’t seem to matter to me that it took longer to dress this way each day. Soon I was using the rhymes for everything: choosing what to eat, choosing where to go with my friends (when I didn’t just force them to decide with my too-cool-to-weigh-in blasé attitude), choosing what books to read or films to watch or music to listen to. Eventually, I carried the ritual into adulthood, making twenty page to-do lists that I would use to decide my itinerary for the day. Every day.

And here’s the really embarrassing part: I still use the rhyme technique, and I’m thirty. I know that it’s ludicrous and sounds insane. But when I go to choose which parts of the apartment I’ll clean, it’s how I pick my tasks from the list. Sometimes, I still use it to decide what to wear. It’s mortifying to admit; I know I’m not a child anymore. I know it makes the task take twice as long (if not longer) to complete. So why can’t I put away this childish thing?

***

Cognitive dissonance has split my brain in two: The part of me that sees, as in the definition of OCPD (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder) that I am enacting “perfectionism that interferes with task completion (e.g., [I am] unable to complete a project because [my] own overly strict standards are not met).” There are “rules” for everything I do as an adult. Just a few include

  1. The dishwasher must be loaded with glasses to the right, mugs to the left, to match how they go in the cabinets.
  2. If I start a book, I have to finish it (even if I’m not enjoying it any longer).
  3. When I wash your bottles, I have to lay out all the pieces (the caps, the nipples, etc.) in the “correct” order.
  4. I can’t send emails until I’ve considered the “perfect thing to say.” (If you haven’t heard from me, outside world, there’s why.)
  5. I’m also stingy with compliments, not because I don’t love my family, but because I have to word my praise in such a way that it will shake the receiver to his/her core and know my love is deeper than the Pacific, wider than aurora borealis spreading across an Alaskan sky.

The adult in me knows how nuts I seem. I’ve grown from marriage: I try as hard as I can not to impose these ridiculous rules on my husband or anyone else. But I can’t seem to stop dictating how and when I take every breath, step, action.

The child in me, though, the one that witnessed my father hurt my mother when the legal emails she wrote for him weren’t proofread perfectly or when my sister and I and my mother hadn’t scoured the floor tiles to a spotless shine, is still afraid of failure to an alarming degree.

***

If I can’t succeed, I don’t even try. The manuscript of poetry I wrote in grad school is my albatross: So fearful am I by the crippling prospect of rejection that I’d rather let it sit collecting dust than watch it get turned down a staggering amount times (as happens to everyone, the best of the best included), or worse, see it go into print with all of its glaring imperfections.

The ancient mariner doesn’t have nothin’ on me.

And so I realize how flawed it is to project this fear onto you, encouraging you to do nothing when you could really be Someone doing Something in this world. I do hope you’ll do better than me in allowing yourself to slack and simply be, but it’s not true, as I lied at the start, that I want you to only be a slacker. Instead, I hope that you’ll learn, not from Fitzgerald’s Daisy, but from Samuel Beckett who writes that you should

“Fail. Fail again. Fail better.”

I like that my starting advice to you is a failure. It means I’ve let myself say something I know is wrong, something I won’t rub out with an eraser. I’ve admitted the most mortifying part of my illness to the world–and more importantly, to you, little Lily–because I want you to accept that we’re all flawed in our own ways. Everyone, at times, is a hideous genius. Everyone, at times, is a beautiful fool.

Please, child, do as I say and not as I do. Accept this reality for yourself, about you. You won’t be perfect. But you will be fine. You will do fine. You are just fine. And I’ll love you every part of you, every minute, without any rhyme or list.

Picture Credits:

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24 thoughts on “Human Being vs. Human Doing–In Which I Encourage You to Do Nothing

  1. lindalanger6 says:

    How beautifully you capture the quiet horror of OCD. I had it too. The horrible thoughts of what awful things I was sure I would do; the arguing my sane side would do to calm the monster. Even hospitalization before OCD was recognized. The great grades maintained while all this interior screaming was going on. I wanted to be a foolish slacker. It is good advice for Lily. But remember that she will watch your listmaking, emulate your perfection. To teach her to be a bit of a slacker, you will have to model it for you.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. originaltitle says:

    I don’t know much about OCD. I can’t imagine having a set of rules to follow each day that I feel compelled to follow lest everything fall apart. It must be extremely difficult to feel stifled by these conditions each day. Though you’ve had much sucess, much of it has been at a cost of personal comfort. I’m glad you are now in a less demanding work situation, although still extremely demanding (I’ve been a secretary- it’s rough! Plus you’re doing it on top of being a mom which is highly demanding). This way you can focus your energies in those you care about, including yourself! I recommend setting boundaries with people in your life who drain your time and energy away from the things you care about: your daughter, your husband and your work. Just say no to things that are a time-suck for you or say you’ll only spend x amount of time on a particular task if it’s not for something you care about. Make time for yourself so that you have room to slack a bit, even if at first in private, if that makes it easier, then allow the people you trust to see you slack. I agree that your daughter will need to see you model this so she doesn’t set her own standards impossibly high. Here’s one easy way to delve into the world of slacking, to have fun and to have ‘you’ time (advice from, me, a perpetual slacker): Set the timer for 15 minutes (eventually work up to an hour). Play your favorite album/opera/symphony/musical/etc. For those fifteen minutes, don’t do anything productive. Brainstorm. Do an interpretive dance (it’s ok, do it where no one’s watching). Eat a pint of ice cream. Drink a glass of wine and do a freestyle Jackson Pollack – like painting. Sing loudly. Dress up and take selfies (ugh, but no really, just don’t post them haha). Write free associations and throw them away. Write anything and throw it away or burn it if youre feeling dramatic. These are just a few ideas. I hope it’s freeing and refreshing, though it may take a few times to really let loose.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. corriewright2013 says:

    This is such a heart bearing story. You are showing so much of yourself but it is so touching and you are so honest about it. This is what makes you and your writing special. No one can ask for a more frank and soul wrenching story. I feel for you but I love it. Such a special person and mother.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. charlieeasterfield says:

    Being an ancient auld thing, in my day it was “eeny meeny, miney mo, catch a nigger by the toe…”, and as a tiger neither has toes, nor hollers, I suspect mine was the original! Hmmmm! I personally have learnt to live by the Frank Sinatra school of philosophy…”Do Be Do Be do…”, as in Do something, then just Be for a while, the Do something….

    Like

      1. dearlilyjune says:

        Because I would never dream of offending or alienating anyone, and because I’m horrified to learn what I thought was an innocent childhood rhyme was actually steeped in racism and discrimination, I’ve removed the offensive text. Thank you, ladies, for enlightening me on my history. To any who read the original, I truly apologize for my ignorance.

        Like

      2. psv411 says:

        It was changed for a reason. It was changed to keep it innocent. You have done nothing wrong. Just because us dinosaurs have a different experience doesn’t hold you accountable. Life has progressed but we cannot erase history or we will not learn from it.But now you know why tiger even though he has no toes. Rejoice that we have moved forward and don’t beat yourself up for your innocence. You did what you had to do for your peace of mind but you did nothing wrong. LilyJune can benefit from this experience. Perhaps you could write about it.💜

        Liked by 2 people

  5. musingsbymegha says:

    As always your writing resonates deep within me. I too suffer from OCD and it rules many aspects of my life. Although, I have started consciously making decisions that contravene my baseless logic system – and it’s working! slowly but surely. Heartfelt post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. charlieeasterfield says:

    Dear auld friend today talked of perfectionism being one’s inner critic…that certainly rings true. And a propos of nothing, but it leapt into my unruly brain, I liked the American comedian who spoke of going to a therapist, and paying her 50 dollars to get her in touch with her Inner Child. She said she didn’t have time for her Inner Child, so went back to
    therapist to help her get in touch with her Inner Babysitter! x

    Liked by 1 person

  7. glitterychicken says:

    I love this hope for your daughter. What a fantastic message – I think of all of the things in life that I have missed because of fear. If only I could just pull my self up by my mental bootstraps. I hope you find the secret of overcoming that fear and bottle and package it beautifully, and sell it to me. I would pay lots of money. Okay, that’s a lie. I don’t have lots of money. Tens of dollars. I would pay tens of dollars.

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I don’t know much about OCD, but I can imagine your writing is so therapeutic for people with it. I find it to be so.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Making Mrs. Miller says:

    I can relate to your feelings of split brain. One half understands logic and reason and KNOWS how silly a certain thought process or action may be. But the other half just as strongly believes in the why and how of it and can’t imagine going about it any other way. We are all still children in some respect- knowing what’s real and true but questioning it every step of the way. I love and appreciate your honesty and vulnerability. It always keeps me coming back for more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      I appreciate your encouragement and support. I think, to be honest, EVERYONE wrestles with a split brain at times. The why’s of this may vary, but I think you’re right, we’re all still engaged in a childlike questioning of what to believe and which half of that brain to trust! Those of us who are “sure” are the ones you really have to worry about!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. theLiar says:

    I feel myself caving in, my walls collapsing on eachother, each time I fall short. The feeling destroys me and for days , I am so bitter I only argue with my family or not talk to them at all. And the worst thing is that I do not know how to deal with these black moods

    Like

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      I know the pain you’re in, TheLiar. I’ve been there many times before. The only way I’ve found to deal with them is to 1) accept them–they always pass, and I just have to ride them out like a swimmer rides a wave out of a rip-tide and 2) forgive myself for them–I didn’t choose them, and if I had a choice, I wouldn’t have them at all.

      For what it’s worth, I also do take an antidepressant and Vitamin D for my mental health. It helps me.

      Like

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