“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” – John Steinbeck
We’ve all had at least one time in our lives when we have experienced a gatekeeper; that person who – intentionally or not – blocks our way either directly or indirectly by making us feel as though we are not worthy of entering their realm. What happens when the gatekeeper holding us back is…ourself?
I am a creative, imaginative person who loves ideas. There have been many times in my life that I have had an amazing idea – the kind where you can’t sleep because you are so excited about it – and yet have hesitated in attempting to fully bring the idea to life or to communicate my ideas with others. This has happened more often than not in my creative and/or artistic pursuits as well as in my attempts in the past several years to have a presence in the larger pagan community. Of course, it has also happened in some way, shape, or form in many other areas of my life as well.
Why? Well, imagine that I approach the threshold of birthing my inspired brainchild passionate, enthused, and ready to get started. I find myself standing at a tall fortress gate. I knock, and am greeted by what appears to be a guard. Our conversation usually goes something like this….
Me: I want to write a book. I want to share my ideas, experiences and knowledge with others in the pagan community.
Guard: Oh, that’s wonderful! How exciting! Let’s see, before I can let you in to start you need a fully formed outline with a progression of chapters written in linear form, a plot synopsis, knowledge of everything that is going to happen throughout the entire trilogy (you are writing a trilogy, aren’t you?). Is it a book of fiction? If so, you need to have fleshed out character profiles complete with appropriate names, appearances, astrological signs and favorite colors. Oh, and you must have every possible contradiction, discrepancy and potential reader question worked out. You have all of that, right?
Me: I have to have all of that… all of it… before I start working on the book?
Guard (scoffing): Well, of course. You can’t write anything good until you do.
Me: But…I just got this idea and…
Guard (rolling his eyes): You don’t have it, do you? Come back when you do.
He slams the gate in my face.
I don’t come back with what he has requested. Instead, I walk away dejected, frustrated, and overwhelmed. I do return a few days/weeks/months later, this time to excitedly and passionately make musical magick by playing my violin or singing a song right outside the fortress gate.
Things are going beautifully…until I make a slight error.
The guard emerges from behind the fortress.
Guard: Hey! I see you’re making music!
Me: I am! I am so excited I just learned a new song and-
Guard: That’s nice. But you messed up that last note. Start over, immediately.
Guard (with a disgusted look on his face): If you are not going to start over then please at least play/sing quietly. No one wants to hear a song that is less than perfect.
Me: But how am I supposed to learn to play perfectly if I’m not allowed to practice and make mistakes? How am I ever supposed to get through the song? Isn’t that a normal part of getting better?
Guard: How ridiculously naive. Maybe you are just not any good at this stuff. Maybe you should just quit before you embarrass yourself. Stick to what you know how to do.
Sometimes, on his worst days, the guard is even more aggressive and instead of waiting for me to approach the gate, he comes to me.
As I sit in my room, full of inspiration and writing a blog post/story or making music, the guard tiptoes up to me, looks over my shoulder and says…
“Egads woman! That is utter crap!”
I am sure many of you have had similar experiences, particularly if you have ever had a desire to do something or go after something that was both thrilling and terrifying and which required vulnerability of some sort.
It took me a long time to realize that this guard was perfection, and that perfection lies. In fact, perfection is the greatest enemy of creativity and progress. As a woman by the name of Anne Wilson Schaef once said, perfectionism is “…self abuse of the highest order”. I (and many others I know) have suffered from this self abuse for years.
The odd thing is that I don’t particularly crave perfectionism when it comes to the books I read, the songs I listen to, the art I see, or even as a desired characteristic in my friends and/or significant other. My magick is “messy” at times and I bask in its untamed wildness. In fact, I often find perfection boring at best and at worst I am repelled by it.
I like the people around me to be real, which means that they are going to have flaws. The people I feel the deepest connections with have not yet fulfilled their highest potential and yet strive for just that in some way, shape, or form. The people I love do not claim to be perfect both because of humility but also because they know on some level that perfection equals stagnation and what would life be without a reason and motivation to learn, explore, strive, and grow?
For the most part, I like art and music to be messy, loud, colorful, imperfect. I can relate to all of those things. To be honest, I don’t think that the Goddesses I serve expect perfection of me either. Growth, yes, but not perfection because perfection equates to being stagnant.
I don’t like the stories I read or the performances I see to be wrapped up nice and neat with a little bow or to meet all of my preconceived notions of how they should end. The tales I like the best surprise me, taking me on twists and turns which are unexpected and which leave me thinking, with blanks to be filled in allowing for often imperfect yet deeply meaningful interpretations.
If art were meant to always conform to fit a preconceived ideal of perfection, we would never have enjoyed the stunning imagery of Cubism or the beauty of Impressionism. Picasso would be banned from ever having any of his art shown in a museum.
Think about what would have happened if some of our country’s most revered heroes and accomplished citizens had listened to the guard at the gate.
Where would we be if Einstein had listened to the inner voice who agreed with the teacher who told his parents that he would amount to nothing because he was unable to meet his teacher’s expectations? Or if Walt Disney had heeded his guard’s insistence that he truly did not have imagination as he was once told?
The same goes for our spiritual mentors and ancestors as well. The larger, more visible Pagan community can be intimidating, particularly if you are just starting out or if you have been solitary for many years and/or are new to being involved in the Pagan community on a larger scale. We must remember that few, if any, of those ancestors and icons who blazed a trail in the Pagan world had a blueprint to go off of when it came to making magick, conducting rituals, or teaching others. They had to learn in many cases through trial and error and it is through the willingness to fail that some of the greatest innovations, ideas, and spiritual tenets have been born.
While there is certainly a lot to be said for grounding our spiritual practices in research, history, and the experiences and knowledge of those who have come before us we must also recognize that no one person is the voice for any deity and there is no perfect pagan or pagan path. It may seem at times as though the gatekeeping we might experience is external, often times we are the ones truly holding ourselves back. We are the ones surrendering our power to the guard at the gate. The truth is that we do not have to measure our devotion to our Gods or judge our worth as a practicing pagan based on anyone else’s standards. I believe that to devalue the unique gifts that we have each given and/or to find ourselves lacking in our spirituality based solely on what someone else thinks or feels is to dishonor the Gods.
It is crucial to remember that whenever you are starting something new, there is a good chance you are going to fail and/or that you are not going to be happy with your initial result. This is not an indicator that we aren’t adequate, competent, talented, or “good”. Rather, it is a vital part of the process. Focusing solely on the end result rather than the journey not only stifles our potential, it often causes utter misery.
Young children seem to get this. They play without inhibition. They don’t worry quite as much about what others think of them. They learn without expectation and, most of the time, they don’t attempt something new with the necessity of getting it right the first time or the feeling that they are a failure if they don’t achieve some preconceived notion of success.
I think that as we get older we forget the joy that can come from the process of learning or trying something new and instead have an almost arrogant expectation that we are going to be successful with every attempt we make. When I was first learning to play the violin, I would get discouraged and frustrated by the required learning curve as though I had expected that somehow I would miraculously know how to play a song perfectly on my first attempt despite not having played before. A musician friend of mine would remind me that we were not born knowing how to walk. Indeed, it is necessary to learn how to crawl before walking is even a viable possibility. None of us give up learning to walk simply because we don’t get it right the first time or even the first several times.
Being focused on perfection and the “right” way of doing things can inhibit our growth and foster frustration where there was once interest and joy. Several years ago when I began learning to read tarot, I felt bound to the book that came with the deck and didn’t trust my own intuition at all. I believed that in order to do a reading correctly I had to go by the interpretation in the book, even if it didn’t intrinsically resonate with me. This led to a lot of frustration until a friend of mine hid the book and forced me to begin giving her readings based solely on my intuition of what the cards meant. These days, I do several readings each week and have learned to trust my gut feeling about what the cards are trying to tell me. Learning to trust my instincts rather than conform to someone else’s interpretations has helped me to become even more proficient with tarot over the years and has led to a sense of fulfillment and joy in doing readings beyond what I could have imagined in my early years.
Some of the best advice I ever received about undertaking any new or creative ventures came from my fiddle teacher. I once asked her how long it would take to learn how to play a song perfectly, with absolutely no mistakes, and how to make that happen. She looked at me, smiled, and said, “Play happy. Just have fun and play happy”.
It is, in my humble opinion, impossible to be innovative and perfect at the same time. The gods of innovation demand that you be willing to fail.
In order to be truly creative, you must play. This applies not only to our spiritual practice but to every aspect of our life as well. You must roll around in the dirt (metaphorically speaking) and get messy. You must be willing to sing at the top of your lungs or play loudly (even if you sing/play out of tune), to string together the most ridiculous sounding sentences/lyrics/verses so long as they convey what lurks in the deepest parts of your heart and soul, and to plant your hands firmly in paint and smear them across the canvas with wild abandon, not worrying whether or not you get any on the floor.
You must be willing to speak your truth, even when you feel that you have nothing of value to say.
You must go after that promotion even though there is no guarantee that you will get it and not getting it could break your heart.
You must use every ounce of determination and grit that you have in whatever athletic endeavor inspires you knowing that you could end up defeated and exhausted.
You must fight the good fight even when your opponent seems more skilled, more powerful, and more intimidating.
Sometimes you have to blindly proclaim your love even though there are no guarantees of reciprocation. And, even if things don’t work out, you must have the courage to open your heart and allow yourself to love with abandon again and again.
Moving beyond the shackles of perfection necessitates throwing yourself out there – with complete vulnerability and potentially with your perceived flaws on display. Striving for excellence and growth is healthy and beneficial. Striving for perfection is frustrating at best, harmful at worst, and rarely if ever results in a feeling of satisfaction.
I am tired of abusing myself in the impossible pursuit of perfection. I am tired of the misery and self doubt perpetuated by this pursuit. Instead, I will hold myself to a standard of courage and grace, not perfection.
I will try new things; I will not let my anxiety around possible failure hold me back.
I will put myself out there – in the Pagan community and in other areas of my life – at the risk of looking ridiculous or being rejected.
I will sing loudly and I will unabashedly play – out of tune if necessary – and revel in my progress.
I will share my experiences, ideas, and spiritual practices with others, despite grappling with imposter syndrome or worrying about what others might think of my spiritual beliefs.
I will start that book without feeling the need to have everything completely and flawlessly planned out.
I will take leaps of faith outside of my comfort zone in order to go after that which I am most passionate and excited about and/or love most deeply.
I will not be afraid to spill the paints on the canvas or express an idea that others might think is stupid.
I will learn from my failure and try again rather than condemn myself for it.
I will “play happy” and make an effort to emphasize and enjoy the journey every bit as much as I do the expected outcome – maybe even more.
Instead of beating myself up and tearing myself down, I will be gentle and loving with myself when I don’t meet my expectations.
I will make a conscious efforts to celebrate growth and small “wins” and remind myself that every perceived failure gets me one step closer to success.
I will remember as the deities I serve have reminded me that truly by sharing my gifts and voice I am being of service and that is far more important than any potential blow to my ego.
I will refuse to let fear be my muse or my guide.
I will refuse to let the guard define me or determine my worth.
I have not been able to completely remove the guard from his post at the gate, but I have found that I am increasingly becoming better at tuning him out or taking his comments less to heart. Some days are better than others, and there are times when I still feel small or weak in the face of the guard’s judgement.
The guard still has plenty to say. However, these days instead of heeding his instructions and turning away, I am more likely to simply smile sweetly and flip him off as I brush past him and walk through the gate.