Happier is…WEEK TWELVE
Perfectionism and Optimalism
The Perfectionist expects her path toward any goal – and indeed her entire journey through life – to be direct, smooth, and free of obstacles. When, inevitably, it isn’t, she is extremely frustrated and has difficulty coping.
The Optimalist accepts failure as a natural part of life and as an experience that is inextricably linked to success. She learns what she can from these experiences and emerges stronger and more resilient.
Perfectionists reject reality and replace it with a fantasy world.
Optimalists accept reality, that some failure and sorrow is inevitable, and that success has to be measured against standards that are actually attainable.
(See Even Happier: A Gratitude Journal for Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment by Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., page 45, McGraw-Hill Co., 2010)
QUESTIONS TO PONDER
In what parts of my life am I a perfectionist, and how has that affected who I am?
In what parts of my life am I an optimalist and how has that affected who I am?
What changes do I need to make in order to achieve a life of being happier with who I am?
Coming back from vacation, I would like to share a few thoughts with you about my pursuit for perfection and my struggle to live my life as an optimalist. Like others, I have been taught that we live in a world where “bigger is better” and “more costs you less.” It is an axiom that has troubled me as I laid out my plans for the future and tried to “take it all in” before my time ran out. Although these are a string of clichés, there is an element of truth to each one of them that must not be ignored. Since we have entered the month of Av and are beginning a count from Tisha b’Av to Elul, and from Elul to Rosh Hashanah, and Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur – all of which is a time for self-refelction on how to live out our days by behaving better – I find it appropriate to record some of my thoughts in this blog on how to “Be happier!”
This week I take my direction from a colleague who has been blogging his own thoughts as a rabbi and as a supervisor of chaplain students for several years now. He recently wrote a column about his love for gardening and what a thrill it was to harvest the first tomato of the season, despite it being early yet. Surely this was a “shehekhiyanu” moment in which to be grateful for the fruits of our labors and the Creator who is so much a part of the world in which we live. However, the majority of the blog was spent on discussing a slightly different matter: “Less is more – pruning, in life, in gardening and in spiritual care.”
In his blog “Abaye” (as he calls himself) laments the fact that he has cut back his basil plant to what looks like a tiny stub whose growth has been shortened. He then reassures himself and those of us who read his column that he is acting on the advice of an herbalist who instructs us, in her video clip, that as harsh as it may seem, pruning the plant down to the stem and the last two sets of leaves will increase its production multiple times over. By slowing down its growth, we learn, we are extending its life.
In the same way as my colleague has been looking at slowing down his life, I, too, have engaged in the active role of cutting back on the number of things I was trying to accomplish prior to the summer. For the past five years I was pursuing an academic program, first in chaplaincy and then in pastoral counseling. Although it may have seemed to many that this was a new endeavor for me, in reality, it was a way for me to put closure on something that I started and left undone following my undergraduate education. I had immediately left the University of Pennsylvania to pursue a graduate degree in classical therapeutic social work at Simmons College. I left in the middle of the second year because my interest in my life profession changed as I was attracted to Jewish communal work.
Back in January I made a decision to prune back on my activities so that I could devote more time to myself and my family. Even though education is a lifelong endeavor, more was not necessarily better – for me – at this juncture in time. In May, when the last unit of pastoral work came to an end, I said goodbye to my colleagues who were continuing in the program. I turned in my identification badge for a new title, and the keys to the classroom, and now I am considered to be a visiting clergy at Beverly Hospital.
When I was in the midst of my learning, I thought that I needed to be involved in the program 24/7 in order to perfect my skills as a pastoral presence to my congregation and to others. There is so much I do not know, even after many years of study. The same can be said about my knowledge of Talmud and Codes, and Torah. Little did I realize in my pursuit for perfection how fractured I had become, as I divided my attention into too many different places at once, and not being focused in any. As much as I enjoyed the challenges of both the hospital visitations and the sermon writing, and both informed the other as I grew in my potential, I was also failing my own inner life. It was time for me to take a step back and to prune what I was doing to myself.
Some people do very well at multi-tasking. Having their feet firmly established in two worlds allows them to enjoy a certain groundedness in what they are doing, and not be overwhelmed by the intensity of one task over another. Others, like myself, are learning that to continue at a certain pace in life is counterproductive. G-d gave us the Shabbat for a reason. We need to rest in order to continue with our creative activities. A perfectionist never stops until the work is completed. Even then, it is not enough to that individual to revel in the satisfaction of having completed something that is noteworthy. The optimalist understands, to borrow a phrase from one of my favorite poems, “victory lies not at some high place along the way, but in knowing that one has made the journey, stage after stage, a sacred pilgrimage.”
I am proud of what I have accomplished in the past five years. I have completed my academic program in chaplaincy and am now eligible for certification as a chaplain in a national organization once I have accumulated enough hours of work as a chaplain. I am recognized by the hospitals that I visit and the skilled nursing facilities that I volunteer my time at as valuable consultant to patients and staff alike. Neither is afraid to call upon me when there is a crisis to be addressed. Just recently I was accepted as a member of the Massachusetts Jewish Chaplains’ Council in Boston. I am honored to serve my community in this capacity.
I must admit that there is much to be said in taking time out from one’s schedule, to slow down, and to smell the flowers once in a while. As an optimalist, I have discovered that I can become a much happier person when I attend to less, rather than trying to do more. I can be more in the moment, which is where I would rather be, than making plans for the future or worrying about the past. Just as I tend to see more of the world when I look through the viewfinder of my camera, and notice the details in nature that sometimes escape the naked eye, I am learning to accept some of the details of my life as opportunities for growth, as I prune back and wait for new stalks to develop.