Wednesday, May 30, 2007

If you don't like your D, don't go to C; or, The Gift of Imperfection

Today I had my fourth oboe lesson. I have been having trouble descending down the C scale. I'm fine till I get to E, then D, then C...I have trouble there, whether it's crooking my pinky finger just right to hit the low C, or getting the appropriate tone if I do hit it, or sometimes getting any sound at all. Kyoko gave me some pointers on where to position my finger and also how to rest my lips around the reed to make a fuller, rounder, more open sound in the low registers. "You have to have that full sound already at D," she advised. "If you don't like your D, your C will not be good either." So I worked on getting that whole, round tone before moving on. This will take some practice. She did say despite my struggles, "Don't worry, you actually have a nice, warm sound. Don't get stuck."

After she scraped at my reeds a little, things got better. "It's not you, it's your reeds!" she joked good-naturedly. We had a good laugh at my horror of blaming equipment rather than myself for bad form. As a doctor I can't ever say, "Sorry I didn't pick up that Grade III aortic MURMUR there, but it was a bad stethoscope," or, "Well, I couldn't get the airway and the patient DIED because my laryngoscope was broken."

Plus, I've heard my teacher play my "bad" reeds, and you know something - a really good oboist can get a good sound out of a "bad" reed. But I understand her point - as a student I probably need a good reed to achieve a good tone consistently, at least until all the mouth muscles and lumbricals get in better shape. "You so want to be a swan," she commiserated, noting my love of the oboe parts in Swan Lake, "but with oboe you have to be willing to be a duck first. I was a duck for years."

The great thing about all this is I can LAUGH about it. Hear me quack. We spend half my lessons in stitches over my playing. For someone who's been a perfectionist all her life, for whom patience has never been a virtue, whose psychological self-flagellating capacity rivals that of St. Augustine, this relaxed attitude to imperfection - in fact, to being really BAD at something - is a HUGE deal. It feels great. Maybe that's why I feel so comfortable blogging about all this and have the audacity to name myself an "anesthesioboist." My definition of success is true peace with oneself, and I'm so at peace with my own imperfection at the oboe that I feel I've already succeeded, in a way.

Oboe is helping me with my spiritual homework. Here's what I mean. I think "the meaning of life" is to learn how to be more loving and more complete each day, but I also believe that under that umbrella-meaning, each person has little "homework assignments" to work on. I think some of mine are to learn about human worth - what defines it, and how to honor it; to learn patience; and to learn enough humility to accept imperfection (my own as well as others'), and also to forgive and let go when imperfection causes me pain. I have other homework assignments, but these seem to be the recurring themes, I think because I am a slow learner. I try, I fail, I try, I fail - "I'm all... 'this is hard!' " as the speech-impediment girl on Will & Grace said. Oboe helps me slow down and work on learning these lessons.

So if I'm playing badly because I haven't developed sound technique or muscle strength yet, so be it. I'll just keep working. If the reed really is at fault, ok then. We'll scrape it and try again. Patience, patience, patience. No need to fixate on blaming something.

I believe, like so many self-help books and gurus have expressed one way or the other, that assigning blame is one of the most immature and unproductive human tendencies (speaking as someone who has succumbed to it many times). People seem to NEED to point to someone who's at fault, and also NEED for themselves NOT to be found faulty, as if imperfection were the end of the world (again, guilty).

I had a very recent experience of this latter phenomenon when I pointed out an instance of unequal treatment to someone, and that person bent over backwards trying to find outside explanations for the event rather than taking responsibility for it, however unintentional it may have been, as if admitting a mistake or a failing or an imperfection were going to destroy some precious, unblemished identity. But people are intrinsically precious; if we could all really, truly believe that, no matter what, then dealing with our own imperfections and mistakes, and those of others, would be so much easier. We wouldn't be wound so tight. (This was actually what my NPR essay was about.)

I think Jesus was probably one of the most relaxed people on earth. Heal on the sabbath? Sure, why not. Hug a leper? Absolutely. Tell a person caught in adultery that she wasn't condemned? No problem. I think one of the reason's he wasn't wound so tight is because of what HIS faith was made of. He KNEW people were pearls of great price - all of them. "You are the light of the world," he said. I think this "good news," in fact the whole point of his life and the reason he was willing to enter fully into our human experience, was to help us learn this about OURSELVES.

So many of his teachings are precisely about the worth of each human being. No, don't sit in the place of honor, because EVERYONE has dignity and value. Wash each other's feet. Trust like a child, live simply, be generous. If someone asks you to walk with him a mile, go for two. Do not judge (if only people would take THAT one literally more often). Don't lord it over others. Don't just love when it's easy - love when you don't feel like it either. "Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect." (Matthew 5:48)

But wait, isn't this post about imperfection? What happened to, embrace your own imperfection?

In the koine Greek of the New Testament, as I understand it, the word translated as "perfect," teleios, implies not sinlessness or faultlessness but completeness. Being whole (whole, holy, same root, I think), fully integrated, without missing parts, mature, having no need for external honors or affirmations. If you believe every person is precious, including YOU, then there's nothing to be afraid of or envious of, not a movie star's beauty, not a businessman's wealth, not an academic's accolades or publications, none of that. You're already worth the world. You can be at peace. You can also stop thinking, or needing to think, that you're "all that," more deserving than others, superior to others. I repeat: you can be at peace.

I remember recently hearing an ad on the radio for a summer program for high school students being offered by a well-known Ivy League university. It was inviting young people with talent, vision, "leadership," etc. to apply. I had to roll my eyes. If EVERY child were a leader, where would all his or her followers come from? Why is "talent" so important? If our children were "average," would I love them less than if they were prodigies? DUH, of course not. This is why I love the movie Little Miss Sunshine so much; the idea that life is a beauty contest in our society, but SHOULDN'T be, is so true and so humorously rendered in the film. I'll be thrilled if our kids grow up to be loving, kind, happy, hard-working people with good judgment and integrity. Integrated, whole, holy, teleioi. For all their imperfections, I already think they're pretty perfect.


Patty said...

You wrote: For someone who's been a perfectionist all her life, for whom patience has never been a virtue, whose psychological self-flagellating capacity rivals that of St. Augustine.

and I just had to grin. Do you know how "oboistic" that sounds? Or maybe you and I are just very much alike. A group I'm in called "Christian Realists" always accuses me of donning my hair shirt. ;-)

As to reeds ... they often ARE to blame! But yes, we learn to play well on bad reeds. We have no choice, since there are days we all find we have no decent reed but still have to play. Go figure.

As to Jesus ... yes, he did all those things, hugging the leper, not condemning the woman ... and so much more. And sometimes he also told people he was worth so much and it was okay to "waste" costly perfume on him. He was, in his human form, just so darn balanced. I used to say, "Well, it was easy for him ... he was/is God!" But after years of Bible study I realized that he gave up the "God part" while here in a sense ... if you know what I mean. He struggled. He had to fight sin. And still he remained perfect. That was humbling for this perfectionist sort of oboist. Sigh.

Hmmm. Maybe I'm not making sense. I can be that way, to be sure.

Oh ... and I'm just loving your blog! :-)

T. said...

Thanks, patty! I'm lovin' your comments too. Nice to find some supportive, kindred spirits out there...

And I loved what you pointed out, about Jesus being perfectly balanced. I think it all comes from that knowledge & wisdom of what every human person is worth, and that "perfection," that is, "completeness"/"wholeness," described by that Greek word. In the end I think it's that wisdom, balance, wholeness, and connectedness that we hear when he says, "Peace I leave with you, my peace is my gift to you" - words to ponder and drink in!

Ann of the Incredible Gift said...

teleioi That's the kind of balance I am trying for. I'm still working on not being so hard on myself. Husband said the other day, "Are you finished beating yourself up now?"

"I'll be thrilled if our kids grow up to be loving, kind, happy, hard-working people with good judgment and integrity."

I look at my kids, and I'm thrilled to think they're pretty close. Some of those things still need work, but are lots better than as teens.

T. said...

Ann, it sounds like you, Patty, and I are all experts at the beating-oneself-up thing! Ah, well...we'll just have to keep striving for that teleioi...