I am, in general, a rule follower, and a fan of both uniformity and procedure. I like to keep my pens with their caps on or their buttons unclicked. I like a neat car, and folding my t-shirts in thirds, first horizontally, and then vertically. If you have ever been sweet and generous enough to help me with fresh laundry, I’ve probably – no, definitely – revisited your work later. (You can ask my husband, who has gradually taken to folding mostly his own clothes.) I dislike a messy bed, even when the sheets are in the wash. I like the soothing silence of our town library, and can hardly handle the cacophony of camper songs in our summer Dining Hall, which is a more insurmountable occupational hazard than you can possibly imagine, unless you've witnessed it yourself. When I worked in a juvenile group home, residents had to line up in silence and then count off in order to transition from building to building,
and I loved it.
Hello, My name is Michelle and I am systematic,
and I can be a
In truth, it can be a considerable challenge for me to overlook procedure for the sake of fun. I have spent many a moment stuffing down my frantic need to organize or correct, all so that I don’t entirely stifle a mood. While I love to organize, I am terrible at giving instruction, because I’m both not what one would call verbally coherent, and I also want to give every tiny detail of my micromanaged vision for how you should organize the left side of the staff bathroom shelving: “The pile of mystery hair ties sits HERE”. It’s astonishingly petty, and I admit, very, very compulsive. I will say that in general, these obsessions are relegated to my personal domain, so if you’re worried about your office or your laundry or your hair ties, relax, because that’s not my world. In fact, I’ll help you fold in whatever crazy manner you want, or we even can ball up the t-shirts and throw them into the drawers from across the room if that’s what tickles you.
A particular area of offense comes in the Projects department. I have been known to regularly refuse social invitations and increasingly rare downtime with my husband because I won’t stop working on a project until I find it to be absolutely, 110% complete. These are typically tasks that can be put down and picked back up with little to nothing lost, apart from my own convenience, such as washing dishes or vacuuming out the car. Once I made Craig wait until nearly nine o’clock to have dinner, because I was busy staining a deck chair. At around five-thirty, long after I should have been finished, he asked me when I might wrap up, and I continued to holler “Almost there!” until night had fallen. To his credit, Craig gave me a kind but firm grownup scolding, which I fully deserved and needed.
I’d like to tell you that I don’t do things like this anymore, but I would be lying.
This is the love of a man who knows me. He leaves me a little room.
Living in proximity to other human beings, and also having a kid, really puts this into perspective, because at times my bent toward quality control comes at the cost of the people around me. I have found over the years that I am fully capable of stealing joy away from my peers, and often under circumstances that make me look crazy as a loon. Have you ever stayed home from taking your child to the park because you needed to reorganize the refrigerator shelves? Have you ever shamed away a helper with your disappointed looks or have you invalidated someone’s contribution to an effort by being, as my friend Amy says, judgey? I’ve done these things. I’ve done them over and over and in every permutation possible.
Let’s be real. These desires of mine – to be thorough and follow guidelines and adhere to a procedure – do have benefits. If done in good measure and with mindfulness, these characteristics can produce reliable and efficient work. I think we can agree that high standards naturally generate good quality. But how quickly I have been to pass off my unhealthy behaviors and thought patterns as anything other than what, in those low moments, they have revealed themselves to be: pride.
I can fold the laundry more perfectly than you can.
I deserve a quiet space, free from your chaos.
My project is worth more than your time and your feelings.
Your help is insufficient, because
Even as I write this, it makes me feel sick, and I am struck by how fundamentally cruel my pride is. Even the word is short and sharp, and it is in my case absolutely, unquestionably accurate.
Our friend Will sent Craig and I a copy of the book, A Diary of Private Prayer, by John Baillie, and I want to include an excerpt of a prayer from the second day, in the evening. This specific prayer has been a challenge to me since I first read it this summer, and regardless of your take on Christianity or of faith in general, I think his words will cut you a little, as they cut me. A necessary cut.
O Lord, forgive me for:
My failure to be true, even to my own standards;
My excuses in the face of temptation;
My choosing of the worse when I know the better;
O Lord, forgive me for:
My failure to apply to myself the standards I demand of others;
My blindness to the sufferings of others, and the time it takes me to learn from my own;
My apathy toward wrongs that do not impact me, and my oversensitiveness to those that do.
O Lord forgive me for:
My slowness to see the good in others and to see the flaws in myself;
My hard-heartedness toward the faults of others and my readiness to make allowances for my own;
My unwillingness to believe that you have called me to a small work and my brother or sister to a great one.
It sometimes takes a pinch on the arm to discover that you have spent the last hour daydreaming in biology class, and it has taken far more force than that to awaken me to how I have concealed my pride under traits that are decent and productive and worthwhile. Sure, it’s okay for me to fold our laundry however I want. Yes, it’s fine to crawl on the floor and lint-mitt my carpet, foot by foot. Crazy – yes – but fine, because it’s our carpet. However, the second that my compulsions inhibit my relationships or communicate superiority to any friend or passerby, I have not only wronged my fellow person, but have seriously misjudged my own importance.
I am not better. I simply am.
We all are.
I realize after all of this has been written, that I have likely kissed goodbye any future help with the family laundry, and instilled fear and loathing into the hearts of sing-along lovers everywhere. In all fairness, I deserve this. But I ask for your grace and your liberal forgiveness as I seek to learn how to be thorough and how to work hard, without letting my pride drive those qualities into the stratosphere. I am attempting what, for an alcoholic, might be impossible and certainly unadvisable: to learn to have a single drink. I am learning to restrain. To reeducate.
My name is Michelle, and I am systematic and I am proud, and can be a total buzz-kill, but I am not better than you. I may have a little more crazy flowing through my bloodstream, and many more delusions of grandeur in my head, but I am not actually better. So, will you help me? Will you leave your pens clicked open and sing your Disney songs at my table? Will you hold my hand and whisper words of comfort as I let my husband fold our laundry? Will you show me more kindness than I have shown you? Maybe then, I will learn.
Yes, maybe then.