Being perfect is hard work. Just ask the people around you who are; they know. On the other hand, they may be too busy to chat as they are racing along their self-paved road to perfection.
It is not that I am against everyone striving for personal betterment. Heaven and its emissaries know that there is much good to do. It is just that when we aspire to individual perfection, it is about the individual. We cheer self-made men or women as the role models of our vision of perfection. However, in the universe of self-made, the black hole is self.
A friend passed away too soon from cancer. In his day-to-day battle with his disease, pain and eventual knowledge that death was inevitable, he was as close to perfect as one could be on earth. It was not that he was perfect; he made his day perfect. He did it by being grateful.
After the Boston explosions, a saying of Mr. Rogers circulated the blogosphere.
“When (I) was a boy and would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”
It is the pictures of the rescuers that comfort us. Hyrum W. Smith said to a group of first responders in New York City after 9/11, “Pain is inevitable; misery is optional.”
Avoiding despair is not ignoring it as suggested by the hypothetical dark comedic question to Mary Todd Lincoln: “Other than that, how was the play?” Instead, it is the sincere and deep recognition of bad and then letting it go.
An interesting neuro-battle goes on in our head when this happens. It is the old trick of telling a person not to think of a white horse. It then becomes impossible not to think of that darn white mare. A rebound effect causes the brain to focus on the unintentional. In this personal war on thoughts, by trying too hard to be perfect, we pay more attention.
There's a story about a Buddhist monk who was sojourning with a companion. They came upon a woman trying fruitlessly to cross a stream high from spring runoff. The first holy man stopped and carried the woman across the swollen river. The second, after some distance and time, reproached his fellow traveler for having female contact. His wiser friend said, “I merely carried her across the water, but you have carried your criticism all this way.”
I still remember when President Boyd K. Packer of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve recounted the exchange where a friend who had been offended was counseld by a stake president, “John, leave it alone.” While my name is not John, there is a poetic tone to those four words. I think of that advice as I hold onto something that would have been better drowned.
Selfish, destructive thoughts do arise. Bad things happen to the least deserving. There is hurt. This is not the movie pain that the villain in “Princess Bride” will suffer.
Prince Humperdinck: First things first, to the death.
Westley: No. To the pain.
This is the real McCoy, so agonizing that death is preferable to the suffering. Talk to someone who has contemplated suicide but stepped back from the precipice.
The effort to be better is founded on the science, philosophy and theology of humankind mutability. Change is possible. There is hope. We know medically that neuroplasticity, the transformation of the brain beyond childhood, answers the question of mental changeability. Seeing every day the infinite variations of goodness performed quietly and often anonymously gives hope. “Look for the helpers.”
Letting go of misfortunes, injustices, human foul-ups and personal failures won’t make you perfect, but you can smile and wave at the ones who are. You can be a helper.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a pediatrician for 30 years, and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at email@example.com.