Life on Life's terms: Fear, Perfectionism, and Grief
Hi TNG fam: my grandpa died last week of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I'm sad, but I also want you to know he was a badass who would be horrified I am writing about him. And that our relationship was often complicated. And that what he would've wanted most is for you to raise hell with your local municipalities - his favorite past time.
I visited my grandparents last May for the first time since I'd left Florida at age 12. My grandparents are archivists of their orderly life, and being there felt like returning to a home I didn't know I missed. The kitchen table, bedspreads, and even the sugar bowl, all as I'd left them twenty years earlier.
My grandpa guided me on a tour of the customizations he'd made to his house, from ambitious porch-turned-Grandma's-sewing room to tiny conveniences like a freezer bag to hold his garbage so it didn't attract bugs. Every coffee spoon had its neatly folded paper towel beneath it, every dish its proper place in the dishwasher. He had a bathroom he preferred we use, specific days for his laundry, and how he liked his undershirts folded.
My grandpa imposed meticulous order on a chaotic, irrational world with nothing but his bare hands and will.
I admired this deeply.
Perfectionism is a trendy concept. Most women I know think of themselves perfectionists. We're high achievers, the girls with our hands raised first in grade school. Not quite the teacher's pet because we were too shrewd to disregard social hierarchy, but we did well. Maybe we threw a little tantrum when we got our first B, inside of course - we wouldn't let anyone know a stupid letter grade had destroyed our souls.
I've never taken this idea too seriously. In the grand scheme of personality defects, perfectionism is like saying you were born with a rapacious intellect.
Oh, you want to be good at everything? That sounds debilitating. [*insert judgmental eye roll here.*]
I'm currently working through my third 4th step in the 12 steps. For those unfamiliar, the 4th step asks that we take a thorough and uncompromising personal inventory of our entire history. In the traditional practice, you'd divide your activity into categories, looking at your relationships, finances, sexual history, and so on. If you're holding on to a resentment in the category, it goes on the list. For each instance, you ask yourself what emotional part of you the event threatened.
Then, the hard part: you find your role in it, no matter what.
If it sounds like a daunting task, it is. But it's also one of the most rewarding undertakings of the entire program. It disrupts the stories of victimhood and helplessness that have become our reality. The 4th step is never easy, but it bears fruit every time.
Also, it comes with workbooks. What dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist doesn't like a workbook?
I've done a few 4th steps, this time working out of a new workbook that has an entire section on fear. I thought I'd skim right through it like I'd done with the one on support systems. I know what I'm afraid of, the answers easy and mundane. Random murders in my neighborhood scare me. Car jackings, kidnappings, the apocalyptic changes happening in the environment.
Fear is easy, I thought, because I'm actually not afraid of a lot.
My family attaches a lot of descriptors to my grandpa. Stubborn comes to mind. Willfull. Unbending. At times, he's been called an asshole by his equally head-strong and unreasonable daughters. But also the rock, a cornerstone, the man on whom his daughters relied well into his eighties.
One of my favorite stories about him happened at his dinner table in my childhood. I was studying for a spelling test the teacher gave each Friday, my grandma quizzing me on common vegetables and fruit. We got to potato, and my grandpa snapped his attention away from the TV. "No, no," he barked. "Potato's got an E." We argued. He might have thought all kinds of things about how men and women should act, but he treated me much like a boy when it came to sticking up for myself.
Finally, he forced my grandma to get the dictionary out and look up the word potato. Satisfied, I read out the spelling and passed the book to him. He ran his finger down the page then looked up at me.
"Nope," he said. The damn dictionary was wrong.
His need to impose his own order on the chaos now impresses me. I get it. There is a right way to spell potato, and if our way isn't the right way, well, the whole damn world will unravel into a fiery lava pit of hell and damnation, right?
Back to Fear
So, I tackled this fear inventory with all the excitement I would picking out a new lipstick. Oh, I didn't? I avoided it for a few weeks convinced I was afraid of nothing but zombies, as evidenced by the recurring nightmares I've had since a child? Right. Now I remember.
Part of the inventory requires you to meditate on prompts related to the theme. I do this by journaling my answers. What emerged surprised me: I am afraid of everything.
Who I want to be
I once chased a boy down who'd snatched my purse outside of a restaurant. The boy, maybe fifteen or sixteen years old, had taken a bag mostly worthless to me except for my journal and three library books. Before I could even think, I'd kicked off my heels and chased the boy down in my bare feet, screaming the entire time about how I was going to kick his ass. This is what I want you to know about me. This is who I think I am. I want to be a person not afraid of shit.
In reality, I am driven by ambition and curiosity, but I hit a ceiling of fear each time I stretch out. I started to publish fiction - thunk - I needed to work on something else. This blog got a little notice - thunk - I suddenly found myself overwhelmed and busy. Again and again, my fear of being exposed and unsafe diverted my travels back to smallness.
And in my smallness, I could do everything perfectly. Impose order on my small house. Make heroic improvements in my formerly dysfunctional job. In this smallness, I found the reassurance of a polished but manageable life.
Hello, Death, My Old Friend
When it was finally time for him to pass, I found a flight and rused to his bedside while he was still clawing for breath. He had been a force just months before. A tyrant that demanded absolute adherence to his vision of life. In the days after he passed, I recognized how fear had driven him. He was terrier, and to fight back he would ensure Would be perfect, every person he loved alive, everything he had worked for safe. Okay, hold your breath, don’t move, one wrong blink and it all comes crashing down.
After the doctors confirmed Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, he went home and called each family carefully scrawled in his address book. During my turn, he told me, "Jamie, you have to take life on life's terms. And I've lived a long time and been given a lot."
It is the gifts that can drive us mad.
The fear that one wrong move and we lose it all. A lack of faith that what is needed will be offered, but what is wanted means little. We fear losing our ideas of what's right, so we straighten the threads in our rugs, adjust our pictures just so, spend unnecessary time perfecting a project we exchange for love. When the world is already perfect. We are already there.