As a child, I was taught to only pick up shells that were perfect. Perfect, in the sense of whole. Beauty, then, I learned could only be found in something perfectly formed. But more than beauty, perfect also denoted value, worth of the shell.
I might find a piece of a shell, cleaned to shiny glimmer by tumbling in the surf or a sand dollar with a corner missing, demonstrating its complexity by showing its innards or its fragility with the tender shell shattered.
My mom would counsel me to look for another. Prized were the small, delicate butterflies of the tiny opened clam shell with both sides still precariously attached. I cannot remember the number of little butterflies I picked up from the sand over the years. Perfection meant I could get it home in one piece.
The desirableness of perfection and maybe in particular its elusiveness was burned into my being, unquestioned. I thought it was the most normal belief – one shared by all – and it, therefore, extended its tentacles from those beach visits into all aspects of my life. Recognizing just how infrequently perfect is attainable, I configured worth or value of all things (products, outcomes, people, myself) accordingly.
Not perfect was clearly not as valuable as perfect. And imperfect could not become perfect. While this was supremely exacting and limiting in many ways, it also liberated me from certain things, like pretty. I was not pretty, not perfect in that pretty way, and I never would be. Nor would I ever be expected to be. As a not perfect, not valuable person, I could construct that barometer easily: not perfect equals not valuable and not pretty.
Striving for perfect in other ways, however, gets to be second nature when you have made this agreement about perfect. It activates the negative self talk effortlessly and internalizes slights as confirmation of that not perfect status. And yet we strive for the unattainable perfect in something, anything.
Knowing just how elusive it is, we self sabotage, we fall, we make it worse by failing. There isn’t anything redeemable about this agreement at all.
Sure, I have heard the TED talks on not-perfect and read plenty of self help books and analyzed my life and its shortcomings, but here it was, in living color as it were. But it wasn’t until I was back on the beach in my home town watching my nephew pick out shells an rocks that I fully acknowledged this perfect agreement and its history in my life.
My nephew was drawn to shapes, figures he saw in the broken and worn down shells. I resisted the urge to dissuade him from collecting imperfect shells. He found one heart shaped piece and he immediately identified it as something he wanted to give his mom – dead nearly a year at that point.
I stepped ever so slightly back from the ingrained belief system. Nearly another year has passed and I still struggle with the aftermath of perfect as I try to release the compulsion to find perfect and to punish myself endlessly for not being perfect. I remember, in flashes as I walk the beach, that there is beauty in a broken shell, an imperfect sand dollar. I identify rocks whose odd coloration or shape evoke beauty, whose value and worth is simply in its existence.