As I’m nearing the end of another school year, I think back on how much I’ve learned since August. I could tell you all about the theories behind addiction, how to translate Ceasar’s Gallic Wars in Latin, why all psychological illnesses target the limbic system, how different neurotransmitters work in the brain, why Harry Harlow studied love and could never hold a healthy relationship, and the ethics behind ADHD medication. Learning is such an amazing thing.
It is the same with life, I suppose. We are constantly attending the School of Life, learning and growing, failing some classes and exceeding in others. There are some concepts it takes us years to learn, and others that we grasp naturally. We try to keep up with our peers and we fall behind because of comparison. Sometimes we find ourselves sitting alone at lunch, or running to the bathroom to hide. In hindsight, none of us know what we’re doing, we’re maybe a little too emotional, we always dread Monday, and we fear that we’ll never make it to graduation. Ultimately, we feel like we are always failing.
I’m starting to think that failure must be my biggest fear. It is a common one. Occasionally, various external forces will rip off a bandaid I have so carefully placed over a wound I so earnestly want to ignore. Don’t we all have those? I like to think we all have little boxes tucked away in a dark corner in our minds that we would rather leave untouched. The emotions alone have the power to bring us to our knees. There is a reason we tuck them away. There is a reason I tuck them away.
This week, I sat in the office of one of my favorite professors, expressing my frustration and anger at both my educational schooling and my life schooling. Sometimes, life just isn’t fair. And sometimes, no matter how hard we may try, or how simple something may be, or how much we may deserve something, reality does not always match our expectations. In my mind, my perfectionistic-ridden mind, I convince myself that because small things may make me feel like I am a failure, it must reinforce this idea that I am weak. Because if I were good enough, if I weren’t a failure, I would only feel defeated by really strong, dramatic things. And beyond that, I wouldn’t feel defeated by anything. Because perfect people don’t get discouraged. Perfect people are not weak. Perfect people don’t need to feel failure, because they simply do not fail.
Spoiler alert: that’s just dead wrong. It’s fake news. We are never going to be perfect, and even the only perfect man to ever walk the earth wept and pleaded for His suffering to be taken from Him. I can only imagine how weak He felt. I can only imagine how alone.
My professor and I talked about how my thought process matched the addiction cycle (perks of being a psychology major, right?). I sighed, because when that bandaid gets ripped off hard enough, I jump right back on the train to perfectionism. A train destined to derail. An all too familiar train. So we talked about the wound that was exposed, and like an onion, peeled back all the layers of panic and fear, and second to the bottom was failure. And fueling that fear of failure was the fact that I did not believe that my best was good enough. I did not believe that just trying my best, just doing my best, justified the end result.
He questioned that. “They didn’t teach you that in Olympic School?” He said it almost sarcastically, he knows my story. We couldn’t settle for best, we needed perfect.
Granted, there were a lot of things that my time on the National Team taught me. The never ending grind taught me how to work hard. At twelve, I left my family to train and compete internationally. I learned to be older than my age allowed. Competing in the solo event, being the only one in the water, in front of world-class judges, taught me to be comfortable and confident in my own skin. It taught me to force them to see me, to be so great they couldn’t ignore me. Choreography taught me to be artistic. As a synchronized swimmer, your body is sculpted to represent beauty, and you are the sculptor. The art and the artist. The World Stage taught me about American pride. The injuries and the tears taught me how to survive. The emotional pain taught me how to endure. The success gave me fire to continue. Everything taught me about sacrifice.
But Olympic School didn’t teach me about my best. It didn’t teach me to feel my failure, only to use it as a means to greater achievement. The School of Life didn’t, either. I missed that day of class. It was a crucial day to be in attendance, and making it up is harder than that semester I took 22 credits or that time I completed my entire senior year of high school in four months. It’s a lesson we need to keep learning, and one I keep refusing to do the homework for. I have tried to run from this lesson of imperfection and settling for “good enough.” I hide beneath busyness and to-do lists, running from anything that will cause me to slow down.
But the truth is, we have to do our best with the life we are given. We are destined to fail, to fall, to feel the effects of making mistakes and feeling inadequate. But we are not destined to be failures. That is not a trait we ever need to become, or even think our souls can acquire. We cannot, I cannot, let the fear of failure and imperfection keep me from living. Some of the best things in life lie just on the other side of failure, and it is how we respond to those failures that determine the outcome of our situation. Kevin Worthen, the President of BYU, put it perfectly: “Failing is a critical component of our eternal progress—our quest for perfection. And because of the Atonement we can—if we respond to failures in the right way—be blessed with a new kind of learning that allows our failures to become part of the perfecting process.”
We will never make progress in our pursuit of eternal perfection if we intentionally stunt our growth by hiding from failure. Like the homeless woman in “Home Alone 2” that hides her heart away because she is so afraid of getting it broken again, we cannot hide our hearts, our dreams, or opportunities to challenge and stretch ourselves. We need to take the advice from Kevin and his rollerblades, that if we leave our precious rollerblades in the box because they are so beautiful and so important to us, and never wear them outside for fear of ruining them, we will soon outgrow them. What use is a heart left sheltered? What use is a life left without failing? What use are rollerblades left in a box?
So here’s to letting my own heart out of it’s box. Here’s to knowing that the feeling of failure and imperfection breaks my heart daily, and here’s to willingly letting it out anyway. Here’s to knowing that learning “good enough” will be painful and cruel. But here’s to knowing that this lesson puts me on the train to eventual perfection. Here’s to knowing that there are things we can only learn from a broken heart. Here’s to knowing that my failure will bring me greater joy. Here’s to knowing that life is better lived when we struggle, when we are challenged, when we are growing. Here’s to knowing that we don’t have to do any of it alone. What Olympic School and the School of Life forgot to teach me, God makes up for in his infinite and complete teaching. Greater success comes from learning His way.
Let’s go skating.