it's beautiful, I just don't always see it
Bazille, Bazille’s Studio, 1870
I’m preparing an application that requires me to compile pictures from the past two years, and it’s made me realize that 1) I have a really nice life and 2) I don’t enjoy it nearly as much as I should because I’m a perfectionist who likes to be in control. Historically, I’ve always been like what’s going to happen, what’s going to happen, what’s going to happen? I never trust that anything will be okay.
For ex: someone really liking you is a good and joyous thing, right? Well, I personally have always reacted by being super alarmed. Like: why does he like me? What’s going to go wrong? Can I trust him? My instinct is to try to scramble for control. I’m a paranoid person by nature. Luckily, paranoia and fixation are great for optimization. I think about problems and their solution a lot, circling around potential blind spots and failure points. Everything is mapped out in flow charts—I’m gunning for Plan A but totally prepared for Plan C. And working out D and E and F. I like this about my brain, the way it always searches for answers.
But it’s weird to reconcile the analytical part of me with the curious, process-oriented part. A recent thought: Life is not the pure expression of will, it’s the pure expression of flow. And I do think that I’ve gotten better at relinquishing control. But I also think people who are control freaks tend to seek out situations where they feel in control. So for me, the question is, when I’m actually very uncertain, can I still be present and accepting?
I think art and love are both lead to great uncertainty. Because you can never know, really. For me, the hardest part of writing a book has been accepting that surrender is a critical part of making art. When I was 40% of the way through I kept thinking: can I finish it? Is it bad? What should I do if it’s bad?
Words started pouring out of me when I stopped worrying about what I should say and focused on what I wanted to say. To do that I had to accept who I am and I want instead of superimposing who I should be on top of that. A character’s aspirations need to be contrasted with their current state—seeing the humor in the gap makes writing possible for me.
I was rereading The Gift of Our Compulsions and I really like what Mary O’Malley wrote about accepting vs dominating:
We try to deny, dominate, annihilate, or run from our compulsions and the feelings that fuel them, only to have both roar back with a force that astounds us. We have lived with this dynamic long enough now to see that what we try to control controls us. Our very resistance to our compulsions, along with our hatred and fear of all the feelings behind them, fuels what we are trying to resist.
I’ve noticed throughout my life that change follows acceptance. It’s only when I fully accept where a desire comes from that the desire shrinks, twists, changes. Otherwise it just grows larger and larger, following me like a shadow.
The biggest way I’ve surrendered in the past lol couple years is by letting go of my anxiety. And I had a lot of anxiety to let go of. Part of that was the overt always-worrying-about-worst-case scenarios part of it. But another part was the general tension that bled into everything. I’ve always been so tense. And the tension has been useful maybe 5% of the time. But it bled in the other 95%. It’s like looking down and realizing you’ve been white-knuckling what you assumed was a terrifying roller coaster ride when it was actually a gorgeous scenic drive. And now you’re like, wait lol, I didn’t even bother to look around.
That’s me: I’m learning how to reconcile the perfection-seeking, beauty-seeking part of my brain with the part that knows everything is already beautiful. I look back now and see that each day of writing was beautiful. Each day of being in love was beautiful. And being heartbroken was beautiful too. I wished I’d relaxed into it more, knowing that everything changes, not letting the present moment slide by so easily. I don’t always see the beauty but it’s always there. To lose something meant you had it for some brief flash of time. We should be grateful for what we given. We should make note of it, write it down, examine it carefully.
I resonate with that feeling of suspicion towards good things happening in life or people being nice/loving to me. It actually has a name - an Upper Limits Problem. It's from a book I got a lot out of called Conscious Loving by Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks, who concluded that it's the major obstacle that keeps people from forming deep relationships. When things are great and you get what you wanted, you reject it because it's 'too good' based on some presets you have about how good life can be. I got some value from having a name for this pattern and calling myself out on it more. Good luck! It sounds like you're on a beautiful journey with yourself :)
This reminds me of something Anthony Bourdain said that I think about a lot: “I understand there’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons and old movies. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy.”
Hearing this for the first time demoralized me as I thought "that guy" was something you could overcome, and if someone as accomplished as Bourdain was still struggling so much with him, what hope did I have?
I've been burned enough times, both by letting that guy overstay his welcome and by trying so hard to control him that he ended up controlling me nonetheless, how to accept him alongside the more ambitious parts of me. I definitely wish I had learned it sooner, but in that way, I guess it's nice, not demoralizing, knowing how hard it can be to get right.