Thursday, July 26, 2012

Life in the cage

Reading Soul Making this morning, I was delighted to find Alan Jones quoting one of my favorite passages from one of my alltime favorite books, JD Salinger's Franny and Zooey:  First Zooey speaks:

"I was furious.  The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn't going to shine my shoes for them... But Seymour said to shine them for the Fat Lady.  I didn't know what the hell he was talking about... but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I went on the air again..."

 And then Franny recounts something Seymour said to her later:

"... and I'll tell you a terrible secret -- Are you listening to me?  There isn't anyone out there who isn't ...the Fat Lady... Don't you know that goddam secret yet?  And don't you know -- listen to me now -- don't you know who the Fat Lady really is? ... Ah, buddy.  Ah, buddy.  It's Christ Himself.  Christ Himself, buddy."

So: a little background here.  As I mentioned earlier, I submitted a play to a contest, thought it was superior, and then, reading one of the winners, I could see my play was lacking a critical dimension.  I think of myself as an excellent writer, and yet, these last few days, I've been reading Ivan Doig's Ride with me, Mariah Montana, and I'm realizing my writing is downright pedestrian next to his -- again, lacking a critical dimension.

As I sat in meditation this morning after reading the Franny and Zooey passage, I found myself looking back over the last few days, and I began to see a pattern of inner behavior.   I'd participated in several play readings, and I kept noticing my mind reacting critically to others' performances (as well as my own). Some inner voice was saying, don't they realize ... (fill in the blank with whatever imperfect behavior is being observed) is unacceptable?  It echoed something I'd noticed earlier; that a lot of what was springing to mind was negative.

And yet some other part of me was delighted to discover that in fact each actor had some terrifically original interpretations to bring to their roles ... in short, you can do things wrong and still get it right in some very important ways.

The child in me, desperate to please a critical parent, is always dividing the world into this is okay, that is not; he is okay, she is not; she is someone to seek out, he is someone to avoid; ignore that one, impress this one... etc, etc, etc.  It's all about some relentless inner drive to perfection, to keep getting closer to perfect; the frantic need to be right, and to get it right or risk parental displeasure and punishment.

I get that this is not just hammered into me but hereditary -- I know exactly where it comes from.  But by constantly busying my mind with evaluations -- this is good, this is bad, this is black, that is white -- I create a sort of cage for myself.  I only see these black and white bars, and miss the glorious, connected flow of creation and creativity that lies beyond the bars.

Anne Lamott describes the problem beautifully in her book, Bird by Bird:

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.  It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life...  I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die.  The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.  Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force."

Which brings me to my final thought.  What I concluded in the course of my meditation is that the alternative to perfectionism might be compassion.  The alternative to this constant dividing of the world into black and white, okay and not okay; the alternative to living behind the dividing bars that separate us from full participation in creation -- is compassion, is doing it for the Fat Lady, is seeing past the bars to that which is loved by God; is seeing that all creation is love-worthy.

As Jack Kornfield suggests in the concluding chapter of The Wise Heart, I need to learn to see the arising and passing of all things with equanimity and balance, to be open and balanced and peaceful -- and I need, whenever those judging thoughts arise, to notice them -- they are, in their own way, a gift -- but also to allow them to float away; to look instead upon the people I'm inclined to judge (including myself) and imagine calling forth the blessings they deserve and represent; to project, not, "you are good (or bad)", but

"May you be filled with loving-kindness.
May you be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May you be well in body and mind.
May you be at ease and happy."

Perhaps if I understand that this is not only the right thing to do given my belief system but also what could free my incipient creativity from its cage it might give me the motivation I need to view myself and the world with more compassion...

Yup.  That's right.  The Fat Lady is me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post. It's exactly what I needed today! I was particularly touched by this line: "the alternative to perfectionism might be compassion." What a powerful shift for me to focus on as I struggle with my own perfectionism. Thank you for sharing!