My heart is on my sleeve today as I confront the very human costs of our country's obsession with perfection. This toxic myth of perfection permeates American society and lies at the heart of nearly all of our failed programs. Prison, welfare agencies, education. We seek the unachievable at the cost of humanity. We sacrifice everyone to satisfy that elusive "what if." If you're wondering what I am talking about, here is an example from the arena I work in (but this is EVERYWHERE): in response to a successful escape from a prison in Norway, guess what the Norwegians changed? Nothing. Why? Perfection isn't a higher priority than preserving the humanity of their prisoners. American response? Add another wall of razor wire and take more privileges away from prisoners so humanity and normality become a distant memory. This is just one example of so, so many. There is a great article about why the Scandinavian prison model won't work here, which ultimately concluded that our obsession with perfection would doom such a humanitarian model because the success of such a model demands a resilient and flexible system.
But this same concept has infected our system of education. As Shawn Achor points out, we have designed our system to make everyone average, and in doing so, in pushing both ends of the spectrum out of the arena, in relying on gross generalities instead of taking the time to invest in individual and human decisions, we lose the brilliance of so many exceptional people.
Perfectionism allows us to move through the world using black and white classifications, ignoring uncomfortable gray areas. Yes, we Americans hate to be uncomfortable. We hate to talk about issues that may call out the limitation of our personal lens, or may make us accountable and aware of our own privilege. But, these areas of discomfort and gray - these are the areas we need to embrace, for it is in these areas that humanity comes alive, in these areas that connection blooms. Nothing great has ever come from complacency, nor has it ever come from taking the easy and comfortable route.
(For more about the myth and dangers of perfectionism and also incredible approaches to vulnerability and courage, read anything by Brene Brown. She is amazing and life changing.)
In my own work, I am diving into the gray areas. I am always working to check my lens, to listen to perspectives that make me uncomfortable, to confront - or sometimes just sit with - my own contradictions. Here is a personal example: as a woman, I have been raised in rape culture. I have spent my life fearing that circumstance, learning how to curb my own behavior in order to avoid danger. In Idaho, I took Krav Maga because at the time the law required you leave marks on an attacker in order to prove you didn't consent. So, I learned how to leave marks. I have spent just as much time working to unravel that culture, boycotting companies who objectify women, working to educate people on how damaging objectification and body shaming can be. Now, in my work, both as an attorney and with ATLaS, I work with the very people I've feared. And I show them deep compassion. And I believe they should have a chance at redemption. Sitting with these two perspectives, both equally weighted within me, is really hard sometimes. But I have found greater healing in finding the humanity in a population that could easily be flamed out as a group of monsters than in subscribing to the easy generalization that they are monsters incapable of redemption. I have found greater healing in prioritizing humanity over my own fears, over my own lenses, over my privileges.
This is not easy work. And still I get called out on my own lenses, on the blinders that my very priveleged upbringing and life have afforded me, despite what those around me would call hypervigilance to root those lenses out. And instead of letting that get my hackles up, I turn toward the uncomfortable. And I learn. And I listen. And I feel. Through my work with ATLaS, I hope to see America embrace an entirely new prison system. I hope we have the courage to build something human and healing, instead of dooming ourselves to decades of trying to fix an unfixable system with untenable piecemeal solutions. But I also hope that we can return that concept of humanity to our government, to governmental agencies, to social welfare, to business, and to education.
My challenge to you: turn toward the discomfort, work in the gray areas, and let go of any generalities that allow you to otherize. And most importantly, let go of the myth of perfection. People, systems, societies - they are messy. Accepting and celebrating that is how we cultivate brilliance and broaden and deepen our humanity.