“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden
It may sound very simple, and it is. Most profoundly true things are at the core. They don’t usually require five or 32 or 100 steps or secrets or gurus or expensive sessions to learn. It’s something little kids can understand. It’s what I tell Audrey when she has challenging homework or a test or is working to learn a new piano piece. “Do your best. That’s all you can do.” And sometimes now she’ll say it enthusiastically herself, “Well, I did my best- and that’s…my best…so there’s nothing else I can do!”
It’s also the mantra that I had adopted for myself shortly after my husband died. I came up with it as my standard reply for when people asked the question new grievers usually dread, “How are you?” I didn’t want to say, “Fine thanks, how are you?” That would’ve betrayed the deep grief in the foreground of my daily landscape. I couldn’t really say in passing, “I’m living my worst nightmare. I keened for an hour in the shower this morning. How’s your day going? I see you’ve got your latte and you’re heading back into your Lexus SUV?” I’m pretty sure for a while I said, “You know…” But later, I very intentionally chose the phrase, “I’m doing my best.”
It was less about how and more about what. It made the assumption that my emotional state should be obvious at such a time. That wouldn’t change on a daily basis. But it shifted things ever so slightly- from my emotional state of being- the situation I found pressed upon me- to how I was going to respond to it. So what was I going to do now? Well, I was going to do my best. Or…maybe it was just a quick way to answer that question as honestly as I could.
A couple of years later, I had a preschooler and was struggling to figure out my next steps. I had to move from our old apartment, figure out if I wanted to buy a house or rent, and where. And then once I did move, there was a new town and new people who didn’t know us or our story. As an introvert it took a lot of energy; I made small talk with every mother at the kindergarten camp pickup the year before Audrey started kindergarten and tried to set up play dates so it would be a smooth transition for her.
The first couple of years after I moved were very difficult. Leaving behind the apartment we had lived in together as a family cemented an end to the life I knew and even ended my early grieving period, pushing me forward in a pretty uncomfortable way and leading to panic attacks and a new level of anxiety I had previously not experienced when I was still in the grief “cocoon.” The house I was renting didn’t feel like home yet; the old rituals and routines I’d come to rely on in my old town were gone and it took some time to create new ones.
No one was asking me how I was anymore, but this time I picked up the phrase, just slightly altered, and adopted it as my personal mantra, something I realized I had to tell myself, often out loud, over and over when I felt my progress was slow, or I was not where I thought I “should” be at this point. “I’m doing the best I can,” I would answer to the questions in my own mind: Shouldn’t I be working yet? Shouldn’t I be dating? Some widows I’d met online were already remarried!
And with Audrey in school for longer hours, the pressure I felt increased to the point where I felt I had to be running around “getting things done” every second of her school day- often skipping lunch while I got lost in errands and projects I thought were important. Eventually, when I completely burned out doing this and my health started to suffer, I had no choice but to slow down and be satisfied with getting less done and being where I was, not where I’d hoped to be by then. To someone who had struggled with perfectionism most of her life, my mantra became very important then: “I’m doing the best I can.”
I’m doing the best I can, I’d say when I left a sink full of dishes at the end of a day because I was just too tired to do them. (Gasp!) I’m doing the best I can when the clean laundry sat dumped on the couch unfolded for a week. I’m doing the best I can, when my four-year-old child sat crying in my bed on her dad’s birthday and all I could do was hold her with tears streaming down my own face silently. I’m doing the best I can when she has a play date and her little friend asks her where the rest of our house is.
It’s a short, but concentrated mantra- and like poetry, every word counts. The “I’m” acknowledging your own unique identity, soul, and path. The “doing,” an active word, a verb- inserted directly after your noun. You are not acted upon. You are acting. You are doing. “The best:” that is the absolute most excellent you can achieve.” “I can.” This is important because you’re not doing the best someone else can do, only that you can do. You can’t compare yourself to others in your situation or out of your situation and see how they’re doing it. This is your particular road to forge, and you are doing it- you alone. Someone else might do it differently- but there is no better- just different.
Later I added two more words: “right now.” I’m doing the best I can right now. These two words are crucial because it was easy for me to look back in my past and see how I’d functioned at such a higher level and was so much more productive. But that was then. Life changes, we evolve. Why would we be the same, especially if we’ve gone through something tumultuous? They’re also two important words for another reason. When you look back at this time later, you may think you could’ve done better. But the truth is you did the best you could with the information and abilities you had at that time. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards,” said Kierkegaard.
Finally, doing your very best looks different for everyone at different times and on different days. It does not mean going at full speed all the time until you’re in breakdown mode. Doing your best might even look like taking a nap, or crying in bed one day. It might look like you’re neglecting your housekeeping, but maybe you’ve added daily exercise to your routine. It might look on the surface like you’re lagging behind- but you’re resting- like everything does in winter. Your spring will be glorious.
Above all, doing one’s best means showing up. You show up for your workout. You show up for your child or your friend. You show up at the blank page to try to write something of value again. Showing up means you’re 95% on your way to doing your best.
I wanted to share one longer story in that vein. It’s something I came across a couple of months ago by Buechner, one of my favorite spiritual writers. It’s called, “The Best She Could:”
WHEN YOU INVITED me to come speak at this anniversary of your founding as a church you had no way of knowing that the minister who founded you, a man named George Shinn, happened to be my wife’s great grandfather, and it pleases me to think that maybe that was not entirely a coincidence. In any case, it was this same George Shinn who in 1880, five years before being asked to start your church here in Chestnut Hill, was summoned once at midnight to the bedside of an old woman who lived by herself without much in the way of either money or friends and was dying. She managed to convey that she wanted some other woman to come stay with her for such time as she might have left, so George Shinn and the old woman’s doctor struck out in the darkness to try to dig one up for her. It sounds like a parable the way it is told, and I am inclined to believe that if someone were ever to tell the story of your lives and mine, they also would sound more like parables than we ordinarily suppose. They knocked at doors and threw pebbles at second story windows. One woman said she couldn’t come because she had children. Another said she simply wouldn’t know what to do, what to be, in a crisis like that. Another was suspicious of two men prowling around at that hour of night and wouldn’t even talk to them. But finally, as the memoir of Dr. Shinn puts it in the prose of another age, “They rapped at the humble door of an Irish woman, the mother of a brood of children. She put her head out of the window. ‘Who’s there?’ she said. And what can you want at this time of night?’ They tell her the situation. Her warm, Irish heart cannot resist. ‘Will you come?’ ‘Sure and I’ll come, and I’ll do the best I can.’ And she did come,” the account ends. “She did the best she could.” – Originally published in The Clown in the Belfry
I love the image of this humble mother, complete with Irish brogue, showing up without hesitation, to do the best she can. The Good Samaritan, in a similar parable, must have felt much the same way. It’s not that the people who “do” or “go” know more or necessarily have more confidence or strength. They are willing to do their best, even at the risk of it not being enough in the end. They are willing to try. Most of the time, with the lives we are living, and the people entrusted to our care, we are doing just that- the best we can.
The last week before Christmas, I was busy getting everything ready for Audrey’s class party- really working myself up into quite a frenzy over the craft and the hot chocolate bar I decided to have for them. I was feeling burnt out, and just then felt I heard the voice of my husband reassuring me that I was doing a good job in all things. It can be tough parenting day after day with no partner to witness all you do. I even shared his words with another young widow and mother of two that day because I know she too is working so hard and doing difficult things with grace.
That same day, I managed to fit in my walk at a local park because I figured I needed it more than usual. At this park there tend to be older, retired people walking around the path. We pass each other again and again because often we’re walking in different directions around the figure eight. Often, one of them, in passing small talk, somehow gives me just the words I needed to hear on a given day. On this day, an older man with a slight British accent saw me running the second time around and said, “Wow, you’re giving it a lot, everything you’ve got! Well done!” “Thanks!” I said laughing, realizing maybe I looked a bit neurotic or insanely determined walking as fast as I could around some of the track and then running for a time. But I also shed a few tears as I continued my walk. It was just what I needed to hear. As Audrey says, I’m doing my best, and that’s my best…so there’s nothing else I can do. That’s not a resolution to make or break; it’s a willingness to show up, and try.
They say this is around the time, the end of January, when people start breaking New Years resolutions. I’m glad I didn’t make any, but I hope these three meditations are something someone needed to hear. This type of writing with an obvious message/advice veering towards preachy is my least favorite to write, so although I was initially satisfied with the idea, I’m happy to be done with them. I plan on starting a new series of posts next week on a different topic. Remember, everything counts. Sometimes it’s slow, but as long as each day you’re a little further than the day before, you’re making progress. Repeat after me: “I’m doing the best I can right now.” And may I say to you as that kind gentleman did to me, “Wow, you’re giving it a lot, everything you’ve got! Well done!”