I wrote a version of the letter below to someone who wrote to me today in a lot of distress seeking advice about a situation they found themselves in at their work. I realised when I finished it that it was in fact to myself (as most “advice” we offer others usually is of course). I hope, but don’t know, if it will help X. But it’s helped me.
In the last few weeks I have experienced a profoundly distressing acute relapse of my multiple sclerosis. I have never had a relapse as serious as this before and at a number of points I have been concerned not just about what disability this may leave me with, but whether I would survive. My ability to swallow has been compromised and with that comes a risk of respiratory distress and choking. Ironically however the enforced rest of this time has given me a mental energy I have not had for some time. It is from this place I write to you now.
X you have a choice to make – repeat the pattern of the past ad nauseam and spend the rest of your life starting journeys that leave you dis-satisfied. Or stop. Change. Find a new way of being. You know exactly what the problem is. It is your fear of changing. Your fear of letting go of a whole set of beliefs and values that our society has constantly nurtured in you for its own selfish reasons. A set of values and beliefs that corrupt us, blind us to the suffering we cause to ourselves and others, and curse us to repeat our mistakes over and over again.
I am as guilty of this as you. As a result I am lying here now with my beautiful children by my side watching the fear in their eyes as they see their mother go through this, and wishing I had the wisdom to learn what I am saying to you now many, many years ago.
Perfectionism, performance culture, the desire for excellence – these are all utterly morally bereft artefacts of our corrupt societies. Let go. Turn to your team-mates in a spirit of love and compassion for them and for you. Be generous with them and with you. Enjoy this experience and welcome its learning. Allow yourself to make mistakes and fail. You do not “become” in such a short period of time. You begin. The becoming will happen when you let yourself see that. The becoming will happen when you understand that what you imagine just now to be “the pursuit of excellence” is in fact simply the excuse you give yourself for not becoming, for not beginning. Open your mind and your heart. Let go of all negative thoughts (you can’t stop them happening but you can let them go), of all desire to be “right”, to be “perfect”, to be “good”. None of those things mean anything if we are not compassionate, open to failure, open to the idea that life is a beautiful mess ultimately resistant to all our futile attempts to control it, to “manage” it, to “pursue excellence”. Approach your work with the idea that love, compassion, patience and openness are the routes to the peaceful state of mind you need and deserve. Pursue equanimity not excellence. Understand your job is to learn not “succeed”. Your current path has failed you before and will fail you again. Change your path.
You are young and healthy, you are bright, energetic and fun. Do not waste a further second of the coming years in this kind of self-limiting and destructive thinking. You are at the edge of change. Look straight at it. Take a deep breath and dive in. The water is beautiful, and I know you are a strong swimmer.