My mother’s friend Willie used to say he wished he had himself an ass-kicking machine.
While I don’t know exactly what Willie had in mind, I imagine a vertical wooden board, say the height of an average man, with a pole that goes from, let’s say the height of an average ass to the ground. This pole has a shoe attached to it. The customer then stands in front of said ass-kicking machine, pulls a cord, and kicks his or her own ass. This machine is located in Willie’s garage and after the cathartic ass-kicking, he invites you to grab a cold beer from a cooler and hang out for a while. I think about this machine a lot. Did I mention that my internal critical voice often times gets hoarse from over-use?
A couple days after arriving in Medellín, I began to long for that machine. I timed my trip to Colombia to coincide with the Festival of the Flowers, one of Medellín’s biggest parties of the year. My first attempt to go to any of the festivities—the classic car parade—felt like a failure. I didn’t really know where I was going and found myself wandering alone down a sidewalk that dead-ended into the interstate. After I found my destination—an underwhelming patch of grass—I realized I had needlessly arrived two hours early. When the parade finally started, I pulled out my camera, determined to get really wonderful pictures of the parade to redeem the dud of a morning.
Memory card error. I felt like such a loser.
It didn’t help matters that I had spent the past couple of hours watching families, friends, and couples enjoy each others company, engaging in some of my favorite past-times—eating street food, kissing under trees, and drinking beer for breakfast. Being alone in a crowd is an extremely vulnerable act. In The Gift of Imperfection, researcher, storyteller, and my new-best friend, Brené Brown, suggests embracing vulnerability is a necessary task for living an authentic and wholehearted life.
Voluntary vulnerability is counterintuitive to most people. It’s also, according to BFF Brown, an act of ordinary courage. I cannot begin to count the times in which the fear of vulnerability has dictated my life decisions, large and small. There are times, of course, when we cannot avoid vulnerability. Being undressed is perhaps our most vulnerable moment, thus serving as a template for anxiety dreams and horror films in which our vulnerability is ridiculed, shunned, exploited, and maimed. How frightening is the authenticity of the essence of ourselves, without the armor of our managed appearance? Max Weber described the ceaseless work for the accumulation of possessions as trapping individuals in an iron cage or a “shell as hard as steel.” This shell of possessions does not have to be material; instead we can encase ourselves in the garb of attempted perfection as we trade in the currency of our own image.
Every time I fantasize about that ass-kicking machine, it’s when I’ve lost my cloak of self-protection of attempted perfection. It’s when the semi-fictional version of myself clashes with the naked reality of me. It’s when I’m living in the conditional and subjunctive—I could have done better, had I only done something different, but I didn’t and now I suck. Where’s that ass-kicking machine again? Most of the actions of our lives, however, reside in imperfect tenses of what we really do and who we really are instead of the projections of improbable to impossible versions of alternative realities.
How much better a fantasy would it be if, when I made silly to serious mistakes, I skipped the ass-kicking and went straight to the beer? To Willie saying, “come on, baby girl, it’s alright, just hang out and have a drink.” It would be moving from the self-flagellation of the failure of not doing it ALL right to the comforting quality of being alright.
For several months, I seriously contemplated getting the words “forget your perfect offering” tattooed on my forearm, believing a permanent reminder to avoid perfectionism would be cheaper then Paxil. An inability to decide on the perfect font, however, prevented me from scarring myself with the wisdom of Leonard Cohen. (Perfectionism, may, at times, have its benefits.)
Embracing imperfection may be an act of faith in something bigger than ourselves, faith that our big and small errors won’t end the world, faith that we’re not the be-all-end-all of our own life, or anyone else’s, for that matter. Imperfections are a testament to our unfinished status, to the fact that we are works-in-progress, that we have miles more to climb before we’re through. They are, as Leonard Cohen says, “the cracks in everything,” the ones that let the light get in, the ones that could even illuminate the way towards a more radical acceptance of our naked selves–as loveable, as attractive, as enough.