in Blog, Reads

The best I can do is not a fixed point.

Still reading the advanced reading copy of the @unfuckyourhabitat book. There’s a whole section called “The Perfection Paradox,” about letting go of your perfectionism, and not using perfectionism as an excuse to not get started on something. I don’t consider myself a perfectionist; I, in fact, chafe when other people do. I’m a graduate student and my advisor called me a perfectionist once and I was all, “No, that’s not the problem!”

And it’s true: I don’t mind things being imperfect. (A Latin teacher maxim: “Perfect means finished,” because perfect tense is the tense we use for completed action. We don’t want to be perfect, because then there’s nothing left to do, and what a sad state that would be!)

So I’m not a perfectionist. But I’m a do-my-bestist, or some more elegant way of expressing that idea. I feel like if I’m going to bother doing something, I don’t want to half-ass it. I want to give it my very best, or why bother. But if it’s not perfect even after I’ve given it my best, that’s fine.

The problem is, I conceive of “my best” as a fixed point, my best ever, not the best I can do right now. I struggle with chronic illness and right now I’m 38 weeks pregnant. One of the lessons that pregnancy has taught me that chronic illness never did is that my-best-right-now sometimes needs to be good enough; my-best-ever is not always attainable. I am only really internalizing the lesson here at the end, though, and I have this section of the #ufyh book to thank for that, partly.

My best at a given moment is defined by a number of factors. How much sleep have I gotten? How much physical pain am I in? Is there anything going on in my social or emotional world that is eating a lot of my attention? My best is variable. I can only do the best I can do right now, and I need to not compare the best I can do right now to the best I could have done at some other time. Before I got pregnant, I was doing really well healing my chronic illness; it wasn’t gone, but I was barely symptomatic. I had plenty of energy and almost no pain. I could churn out a solid, well-written ten-page paper in two days, no problem. I would just sit down and write for six hours, go to bed, then get up and finish it the next day.

Once I got pregnant, things shifted. I often had to choose: is this reading for class going to be done thoroughly, or am I going to skim it and then take a nap? Or take a nap and then skim it on the bus on the way to class, even?

I wish I had learned to be this gentle with myself when I was ill; in the long run I would’ve gotten more done. When I was at my most symptomatic and working as a librarian at two different middle schools, and was supposed to give each of them 50% of my working time but desperately wanted to give each of them 100% of my energy, as soon as I realized that what I wanted was unattainable, I shut down. If I couldn’t do my best, I would do only what had to be done. Because, inexplicably, I would rather do simply what is sufficient than something beyond sufficient but not my best. I guess because I think that people can tell when you’re doing the bare minimum, and somehow it’s less upsetting for people to think you’re just getting by, than for people to think you’re trying hard and you’re not getting it done? I don’t know. Brains are weird.

Regardless of what was going through my head at the height of my illness five years ago, I’m realizing that now, as I embark upon motherhood at the same time as I am pursuing a graduate degree, I’ve got to learn to settle for my-best-in-this-moment. It is actually the literal best I can do, and it’s better to do that than to shut down or, alternately, to be very unkind to myself and rail at myself for not doing as well as I would have liked.