Sunday, May 29, 2011
I sit cross-legged in the bow of our old green Prospector canoe, my bum on a woven cane seat. The canoe bobs lightly in the cold black water near a sloped bank of ancient sedimentary rock. Our red packs are snugged on either side of the centre yoke. John carefully steps into the stern, arranges his fishing rod behind him, and we push off.
Dawn is breaking on this cool May morning at the west end of Pickerel Lake in Quetico Provincial Park. Birdsong erupts from the pine and spruce forests: ovenbirds, yellow-rumped warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, song sparrows and a northern parula with its distinctive rising glissando. The lake, however, is as still and silent as the night left behind. There's a silver sheen on its wide calm surface. Mist clings to the far shore swaddling a stand of silver birch like cotton wool.
My paddle is maple, honey-toned, John's courtship gift from long ago. My right palm cups the curved grip at the top while my left hand loosely circles the shaft lower down. With my right hand close to my right ear, I bend forward from the hips, simultaneously extending my arm to punch the air on a diagonal across my left shoulder and, stretching my torso, place the paddle's tip in the water about three and a half feet in front of me. The paddle shaft arcs forward. I lean back, steadily pulling the paddle alongside the canoe until the blade is about three feet behind me. The canoe glides forward. At this end of the stroke, I lift the blade out of the water and pivot my right thumb down, which rotates the paddle so that the blade swivels flat and skims the glassy water in its sweep to the bow. The next stroke begins.
For the upteenth time, I visualize the body movements matching a perfect stroke. Back and shoulder muscles lengthen and contract rhythmically, arms and hands glide in a smooth ellipsis, the waist twists slightly, the back stays long. And the sound: a slight 'lup' as the paddle enters the water, then a gurgle from the eddy hugging the blade as it moves back, and finally, as the blade swings forward, a lovely gentle trill of falling water droplets.
I correct my form. I stretched forward too far – my back and shoulders are straining. I notice also that when I punch too hard, the paddle smacks the water upon entry. When I pull backwards too hard, the paddle wobbles and jerks. I notice that I regularly go beyond the point of comfort, rather than staying at the edge, or even before.
As usual, I'm trying too hard. As usual, I'm effortizing, a word I made up to describe a long-standing habit of mine. If I try hard enough, so my thinking goes, eventually I'll reach perfection. If I read enough books, I'll be the perfect student. If I work hard enough, I'll be the perfect employee. If I listen attentively enough, I'll be the perfect coach. If I practise scales long enough, I'll play piano perfectly. If I relax completely enough in love-making, I'll enjoy the perfect orgasm. Go figure that one. If I sit at this computer long enough, I'll carve out a perfect piece of writing.
This effortizing rests on a couple of assumptions. The first holds that perfection is worth achieving. It answers a longing within me to unite with the ideal, to come home to God through beauty. When I take in the scene around me – vast blue sky, calm silver lake, deep green forest, orange and ochre lichen-covered rocks – my heart expands and lightens, infused with a simple, lucid peace. This gift from nature seems to call for a response. I reply by trying to make my paddle strokes graceful, which calls for attention to form and form correction.
I think my first assumption is worth keeping, tuned as it is to a deep love for nature and beauty. It's the second assumption that trips me up. This one claims that by dogged will and effort, I can actually reach perfection.
You'd think that by now, having lived nearly 60 thoroughly human years, I would have seen through this illusion. For no matter how hard I try, how much I effortize, a gap will always exist between my form and perfect form. Practice makes perfect, right? And the goal is to close the gap, right? Not necessarily, suggests Huy Lam, a martial arts practitioner and a fellow Integral CoachTM. According to Huy, the gap between current form and ideal can also reveal insights into how you learn: what you attune to; what you hang on to, what you let go of; how you receive and incorporate feedback, given by yourself or by another; and even how you trust yourself and trust beyond yourself.1
The trick is to stay quiet and explore the gap's territory, rather than push blindly forward. So when I loosen my grip on my assumption about effortizing, and focus on the gap, some interesting questions pop up. On what, or on who, do I base my standard of perfection? Am I doing this just to look good? What if my ideal self-image is no more than a cold marble statue on a pedestal? What would I actually gain – or lose – by reaching perfection? What would I gain or lose by not reaching it? Could it be that I'm not meant to be perfect? That no-one is? Could it be that I can be flawed, imperfect, and still worthwhile?
“If you're perfect, I can't relate to you,” a friend observed recently. “If you're perfect, you're set apart. When you accept your imperfections, it shows me that you're human – just like me.”
The mist has cleared. The rising sun lays down a shimmering gold path from the horizon right to the prow of our canoe. The air smells like clean sheets fresh off the line. A slight breeze teases the lake, furling its skin. I back off on the effortizing. Some of my paddle strokes feel sweetly even; others chop and splash. It's a perfectly beautiful morning.
1Huy brought forward these ideas during a workshop conducted in 2009 by Integral Coaching Canada.