Being good was a slippery golden ring to grasp.

I wrote that at the end of the last piece I posted, the first in a series about my family’s favored maxims and the matrix that shaped how I understand my place and purpose in the world. I “hear” them often, these constant reminders of how I should live my life.

Sometimes they’re anonymous voices, my mind’s synthesis of the maxims that many family members uttered frequently, while others are specific–“heard” in the clear voice of the person who most often repeated it to ensure my personal growth would be appropriate. I began this series because I felt curious about why my family’s favored sayings continue to carry so much disturbing emotional charge for me.

I.

Most days I “hear” and “see” my maternal grandfather, “Grampa”, intoning this maxim in his stern, gravelly judge’s voice. The voice comes from above me, as his did then, and I think I got it a little bit mixed up with God.

Good, better, best. Never let it rest, until your good is better, and your better best.

A maxim is a brief statement of a general truth, principle, or rule for behavior, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary. This one is commonly attributed to St. Jerome. Born Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, he became a well-known first century Roman priest and scholar. The attribution is apparently controversial; one blogger notes the Latin translation of this maxim is neither pithy nor poetic. They turned up a citation from Christian Work: Illustrated Family Newspaper from 1897. The maxim is also appears in The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs in 1904. I wouldn’t be surprised if it really did come from St. Jerome though. Among many vaguely reasonable moral teachings, he’s also credited with gaslight-y pronouncements like these:

Virginity can be lost by a thought.

The friendship that can cease has never been real.

We must love Christ and always seek Christ’s embraces. Then everything difficult will seem easy.

Since dutifully memorizing “Good, better, best” when I was young, the words have tormented me. I am certain this was not my grandfather’s intention. He wanted only to instill in me the drive to continually improve myself, to be a better person. Repeated often enough within the matrix of a dysfunctional family and old-fashioned Roman Catholic indoctrination, however, this well-intentioned maxim has served instead as a constant reminder that I can never be good enough.

In her most recent book, Dusk Night Dawn, Anne Lamott writes that perfectionism is “the most toxic condition for the soul. The next most toxic is the ensuing and chronic contempt for oneself, the belief that one is secretly defective and less-than.” My soul continues to survive in these toxic conditions. I don’t fault Grampa or the maxim for my lifelong torture of perfectionism; his words simply wove into my family’s operating system. That system was infected with a variety of viruses from narcissism, alcoholism, and abuse, to the darker aspects of Roman Catholicism that have been employed for ages to control their believers. My family system and schooling complemented one another.

In the first essay I posted on this blog, “Make No Mistake,” I wrote about my primary school experience of learning in a school that forbade erasing. My first grade teacher, Sister Geraldine, explained to me the policy:

You will only mark on the paper your very best work. You are offering this work to God. That is why you place the cross at the top of every paper. You will think before you act. You will make sure that you are correct. Only then will you use your pencil to write. God does not like mistakes, nor does He smile upon hiding them.

We were explicitly taught that our purpose in life was to erase the blot of original sin from our souls by working tirelessly to be as perfect as Jesus was. At the same time, the Roman Catholic culture I steeped in at home and school berated perfectionism. Only God can be perfect, and we lowly humans (with the exception of Jesus and his mother Mary) run the risk of committing the mortal sin of Pride if we believe we can achieve it. In a recent response to a prompt from a Facebook writing group where I occasionally post, I described my first memory of my new school:

Sister Geraldine draws a circle on the blackboard. She tells us, “This is your soul.” She scribbles inside the circle, pressing so hard on the chalk that it breaks into pieces. When she looks at us again after picking them up, her big face is red. She’s breathing hard, like she just ran down the hall. I think of pigs and I want to laugh, but I’m scared of her. She jabs her pointer finger at the scribbles she made and tells us, “This is sin. Your soul is dirty.” We are six years old. “God hates sin, and you must work very hard every day to erase it from your soul.” She presses the edge of the felt eraser against the scribbles and rubs hard. Chalk dust coats the front of her navy blue habit, and the inside of the circle turns gray. “You will never ever be able to make it clean. No matter how hard you try, God will always be disappointed by your efforts.”

The conflicting teachings about pride and perfectionism left me deeply confused. I was taught that I must strive to be perfect if I wanted to be loved by God, cleansed of original sin, and go to heaven, and I was taught that if I believed I could be perfect, I was a mortal sinner. It was lose-lose, and nobody wanted to talk about it. The mind-twisting experience was familiar to me though, and I accepted it as normal operating procedure.

Not long ago, I discovered a psychological term for my dilemma. The “double-bind” was first described by Gregory Bateson in the 1950s. A group called The Institute of Cognitive Behavior Management succinctly defines it: “In the double bind there are two conflicting levels of communication and an injunction against commenting on the conflict.” My discovery that therapisty-like people actually have an official term that describes so much of my school, church, and home experience felt profoundly liberating. Sometimes naming things helps tame them.

II.

Grampa, who taught me “Good, better, best,” was a serious, mostly stern man. Born in 1898, he grew up outside of Boston in a large, Irish Catholic family. I remember mostly silence when I begged for stories of his youth. There were references to a family farm in Ireland, an old photograph taken on Cape Cod that showed several of his sisters garbed in wind-whipped black nuns’ habits and gigantic veils and wimples, and a few stories about Fenway Park and his passion for the Boston Red Sox. He played minor league baseball and harbored dreams of playing for the American League, but life happened. At some point after WWI, he found his way to Washington, DC, earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown University, and married. He worked as an attorney for the Boston & Maine Railroad and apparently struggled over but ultimately declined an offer by an Irish Prime Minister (Eamon de Valera, I think) to repatriate and work for his administration.

When I knew Grampa, he was a respected administrative law judge for the Interstate Commerce Commission, a highly regarded member of his community, and the acknowledged leader in our family (except for child-related things). A word or look from him could freeze me in my tracks, and when he spoke I paid close attention. He was the only person I’ve known in my life who emerged unscathed from interactions with my mother. That alone was enough to earn my deep respect. I never saw him without a coat and tie except just before bedtime, when I also saw him without his teeth. This made him only slightly less daunting.

As much as I felt wary of his power, I also felt his affection. He dubbed me “Honey Bear” because I was obsessed with the bear-shaped plastic dispensers for the sweet treat and only called me by my given name when I transgressed. He took me to the playground when I stayed with him and my grandmother in the city, and bought me peppermint ice-creams that came in silver dishes at Howard Johnsons when he needed a break from me. Unlike my mother, he never took it away from me before I was finished to eat it himself. That always made me feel grateful. He’d read the Washington Post while drinking black coffee and smoking Camel unfiltereds, and I’d fold paper placemats into airplanes while I waited.

Staunchly Catholic, he prayed the rosary daily, but rather than threatening me for disturbing him, he actually paid me to be silent. I was presented with nickels and dimes for all sorts of things, like doing the dishes, rubbing his head, and being quiet while he took a nap or listened to the Red Sox games on the radio. He knew the value of bribery in keeping an active child in-hand, but he also made the transactions lesson-worthy. I learned, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” “A fool and his money are soon parted,” and “The art is not in making money but in keeping it.”

He was never fully successful getting me to understand why it was obligatory that I save my money instead of buying candy, but also required that I deposit what seemed an awful lot of it into the collection basket at weekly mass. Even more confusing to me was the expectation that I release one of my earned coins into the slot beneath the banks of votive candles one finds in every Catholic church. I commented to him once that it felt like I had to pay God to answer my prayers. That earned a harsh look and a long afternoon of his silent disapproval.

The conversations about saving and charity, begun when I was around 7 or 8, were the start of my education in social justice. He impressed upon me that the money I gave in church was to help the poor and told me I carried a solemn obligation to care for others in need. “You shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother,” he’d tell me and then explain the full import of Jesus’s teaching that “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.” I took his teachings to heart. I was stunned when, not long after these serious conversations started, I pledged my entire piggy- and dime-bank savings to a Jerry Lewis telethon, and my parents were outraged.

The telethon person instructed me to ask my father to write a check for the amount I’d pledged to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and all hell broke loose in my living room. My parents gave generously to the Church and charities of their choice, but for reasons I never understood reacted violently to my first attempt to help children in need. They complicated it all further a week later when they presented me with cash in the amount I’d pledged on the telethon. They told me they’d thought about it and decided I should know the truth that the bible taught: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.”

I’d been punished for doing exactly what Grampa taught me God wanted, and I buried the hurt and confusion under righteous indignation. When they gave me my money back, it felt like my attempt at charity was invalidated, and I was confused and hurt all over again. It was years before I sussed out that my parents believed most fundraisers were scams, and that a lot of Catholics’ generosity was more transactional than truly charitable. A lot of bible teachings about charity and good deeds generally are either threats of divine retribution or promises of rewards greater than the act. As a young child, I lacked this cynicism. My family’s teachings and the school’s/Church’s forced me into another double-bind.

I was supposed to give everything to the poor and do good deeds and expect nothing in return in order to be a good person who God might consider loving and taking care of. This seemed to me like it WAS expecting something in return. Another lose-lose situation.

…love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High… (Luke 6:35)

There was an additional double-bind. We were taught that Jesus said if someone asked for our shirt, we should offer our coat as well. In other words, we were supposed always to give more than what was necessary or asked of us. At the same time it was essential to be frugal and responsible. As a child, this translated to keeping my money and belongings to myself. Here’s how this lose-lose worked for me. I got into trouble at school and at home for giving my lunches to Martha, a classmate with unnamed problems who always arrived at school disheveled and lacking lunch money. At school, I learned that giving things away, especially things my parents had given me, was dishonoring them and breaking the fifth commandment. At home, I learned that giving away my stuff flew in the face of the nearly inviolate family maxim, “Eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” As always, my inability to get things right left me feeling both hopeless and motivated to try ever harder, the painful paradox in which a perfectionist exists.

III.

When I began to keep a daily journal after my life started to seriously implode, one of the early entries was about my grandfather. I found myself occupying my last memory of him alive when I was 12 and he was 78. It was the one before they ceremoniously bent the hospital rules and allowed me to say goodbye, but that one I’ve blocked. I wrote about the day when I made the whole family and the EMTs wait until I’d brought some socks to put on his bare feet before they took him away. I knew he was dying and I was so full of love and grief and helplessness that something cracked in me on that chilly Spring morning. Probably because the sight of him doped out on morphine and strapped down was intolerable, I hyper-focused on his bare feet sticking out from the gurney’s blankets. I began to wail and shout, “Stop! Wait! Just wait!” as I turned and raced up the stairs at my uncle’s home to find socks. The EMTs, inexplicably, waited; they and my family looked on as I put his son’s tennis socks on Grampa’s feet. I watched those socks until the doors closed him into the ambulance. When I wrote about this memory, I cried. In nine years of daily journaling, that is the only time that’s happened.

Grampa taught me a lot more than the maxim that torments me. He taught me how to whistle, how to pray a rosary before I even went to school (a skill that earned much-needed points with my teacher), and how to count change. He taught me what “duty” and “responsibility” mean. He taught me how to be patient, and kind. He also got me to memorize quite a lot of poetry. Along with bits and stanzas from Longfellow and Whittier and the like, he insisted that I learn Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If” from his 1943 collection, A Choice of Kipling’s Verse.

The poem, life-advice to a young man from an elder, gives specifics on how to navigate life with some balance. Perhaps Grampa was more aware than I of my desperate need for practical wisdom in my chaotic life. Or perhaps it was a poem that had helped him navigate his own difficulties in life and he wanted to share that help with me. Despite later learning about the dark sides of Kipling himself, the poem continues to resonate with me as a sort of counter-balance to “Good, better, best, never let it rest, until your good is better and your better best.”

As a child, I glammed onto Kipling’s acknowledgements of life’s conflicts and how to cope. Stanzas like these buoyed me.

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:…

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

…you’ll be a man, my son.

Nearly nine years ago, my life started a slow and complete implosion; my body failed me and down with it went most everything I’d ever believed about who I am and what my life’s purpose is. I’m re-creating myself painfully slowly with “worn-out tools” and the strength of will to “hold on.” I’m just starting to realize that my “best” will never be good enough to let me rest unless I can untangle and clean out my operating system of the programming that led me to believe I am unworthy of esteem or love.

IV.

A day has passed since I finished writing this. As I wrote and throughout the night, my perfectionist self let me know continually that something was wrong. I tried to soothe its irritable, “You can do better than this” nagging along with the other inner voices that warned me to cease and desist writing about my personal life. If I stopped, or deleted, or doomed to the “draft” pile everything that evokes anxiety and self-doubt, I would be a more tormented writer and artist than I already am. Within all the unpleasantness of that inner noise, however, is some thread of value.

As my morning coffee brewed, I heard the words of Kipling’s poem in Grampa’s voice, and experienced an unsettling shift in consciousness. I knew suddenly what was wrong about this ramble of an essay. I have listened to my grandfather and his teachings with my child’s ears and mind all my life; this morning I suddenly heard from a different perspective. The de-bugging of my programming is, perhaps, running successfully.

My love and respect for Grampa hasn’t changed, nor have my happy memories of him. Now, though, I see that I was more a bit of clay he felt responsible to mold than a person. He had an unfortunate and outmoded understanding of child-rearing. He wasn’t as extreme as my parents or many teachers who believed in “breaking” children to make them “right,” but neither did he see me as small self whose thoughts and feelings, soul and spirit, were their own. His example and teachings have guided me through my life, not the least of them Kipling’s “If.” This morning, for the first time, the subtle rottenness of that poem dawned on me.

The poem is titled and begins with the word If–a conditional word. The succeeding stanzas present a variety of life’s challenging experiences and how a person should behave. Those “answers” are what appealed to me so much as a child. I failed to see then and through the decades that the entire poem is constructed as a conditional if-then statement of reality. It begins with “If” and ends with “you’ll be a man, my son.” The message from elder to younger is this: You are not now and will not be a man (or perhaps even my son) unless you fulfill these conditions. The life advice in the poem is decent, but the overall lesson is toxic. Just as toxic as “Good, better, best. Never let it rest, until your good is better, and your better best.” The words’ import can’t ever really be separated out from the matrix of their utterance.

7 thoughts on “Maxim Matrix: Part II, Perfectionism

  1. I really enjoyed your focus on your Grampa. Every essay you write teaches me more and more about my family :). As you were discussing Sister Geraldine, I couldn’t help but think of Protestant minister/theologian Jonathan Edwards and his sermon “Sinners in the Eyes of an Angry God” where he talks about God holding all of us like spiders over the “pit of hell.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes! When I read Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon in grad school, it reminded me of the threats my teachers used against us!

      Like

  2. I’ve been reading each chapter and find them very moving beautifully written. I can’t help feeling sad and disturbed and thankful for the good parts. You express incidents in such a logical and observant way that makes one feel you have survived by becoming self-aware and well aware of your surroundings.
    I hope these memories may be shared with the wider world.

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  3. This second part in your series on the matrix of mangled maxims with which you were brought up goes ever deeper into your childhood and the injuries committed on your psyche by such dysfunction happening around and to you. As always by your beautiful, crisp writing, I was riveted, intrigued, and very moved. I also felt outrage. No wonder why you felt and feel confused, among other states. The memories of your grandfather are poignant. I am glad you have been able to hear his words from another perspective, that of an adult. It is so wonderful when that understanding over an old set of memories finally comes over us. In other words, I can relate. May you keep up this courageous, profound writing.

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