The last couple of weeks have led to another one of those weird breakthroughs I have been having in the process of becoming a better person. This is actually one I was given the clues to years ago, except I wasn't really listening.
When I first moved out to New Jersey after college, I was spending a huge amount of time at a kung fu school in the city. One of the things my teacher used to do was occasionally let students come along with him to a Sunday training session where he and a bunch of other middle aged Chinese masters of different styles would get together and train/push hands/talk martial arts. The friendliest and most intriguing of the group was a tai chi practitioner (his own words. Personally I'd have no problem using the word 'master' to describe someone at his skill level). I've been priviledged to practice with some immensely talented people but pushing hands with him was a very different experience. With just about every other really good person I've met, there was a sense that they definitely had a center, I just couldn't reach it because every attempt I made would be turned away or deflected . With him, there was nothing there. Any attempt at offense fell into a void and then all of a sudden I'd be in a wrist lock or off balance or my hands would be tied up. All the while he'd be laughing , making jokes and helpfully pointing out weaknesses in my structure. I ran into him again at the world Tai Chi day celebration in Central Park and, as usual, we pushed hands and I ended up on my ass. After we were done, he casually mentioned that one of the reasons he liked my teacher was the fact that he was always willing to compare skills with anyone. Not because he thought he was the best, but because he was felt that he could learn from the experience whether he won or lost. It took me this long to figure out that he was talking about me too.
Like most perfectionists, I am deathly afraid of putting in my best and the result not being, well, perfect. Therefore, to avoid the possibility that my best isn't perfect, I allow myself to do halfhearted, slipshod work which is obviously not perfect so I can comfort myself by pointing out that it obviously wasn't my best effort so its ok if it wasn't perfect. Therefore I won't study as hard as I could for an exam and then when I'm average I'll feel great about the fact that, had I studied the way I could have, the people at the head of the class would have some real competition. In social situations where I'm afraid of saying/doing the wrong thing and people not liking me, I'll settle for saying/doing nothing. I don't exersise or train as hard as I could because If I did I'd expect nothing less than perfect skill and I'd be unable to live with anything else. Basically, on my bad days I am incapable of trying something I could possibly be bad/fail at and so I settle for being mediocre. On my good days, of course, the cocky Akan part of my breeding kicks in and I'm unafraid of anything. Unfortunately, the bad days have been making a resurgence of late. Something about my trying to be better is stirring up all sorts of emotional muck in my system. I guess that means more meditation and the 'fear removal' technique Steven Barnes talks about on his blog. Wish me luck.