Saturday, February 4, 2017

"If only..."

We all have an internal judging voice. For some this is coupled with a compulsion to make things perfect. On good days, wanting to fix things can be an inspiration to higher attainment. All too often, though, it turns into preaching -- at ourselves as well as others -- when things fall short of what should be:
Dear Lord, I have sinned against thee.
For I do not love all flowers equally.

For daffodils have come up in my yard instead of tulips.
For I hate their stupid yellow faces...

For in truth, my will is not done.
The above excerpt from Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's poem "Confession in April" conveys exquisitely our inner conflict when unacknowledged anger feeds impossible perfectionism. Impossible because -- of course -- the will cannot be done perfectly.  

Former poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz showed in "The Portrait" how his mother's unforgiving anger over his father's suicide when I was waiting to be born was passed on to him when he found his father's portrait in the attic: 
...she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
 
Constance Menefee's poignant "If Only" portrays the finger pointed inward. It also illustrates the self-bemused humor that's salvation as we learn to observe and let go of those inner strafing attacks created by shoulds: 
Perfection
is a stubble-tongued whore
who clacks her bedroom
slipper false-teeth...
you coulda done more
shoulda done better
if only and if only...
A running amok side can provide temporary escape from trying to meet high standards. We've seen this in charismatic preachers caught in houses of ill repute, but it can also show up in innovative and charming slants on reality. Though born in 1912 and writing at a time when southern girls were taught to be prim and proper, May Swenson cared little for what the neighbors might say. In "Beast," for example, she admitted:
...my Brown self
a thing gleam-jawed
goes downright
Four-pawed
Most of us could stand to be more downright and four-pawed, let go of self-judgment, of holding ourselves accountable to an unrealistic ideal. Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön teaches Tonglen, a breathing practice that awakens compassion, reminding us we can only have compassion for others if we do so for ourselves: "Rather than beating yourself up, use your own stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world." 

Mary Oliver calls us to such humanity in "Wild Geese:"
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting...

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