A while ago I talked about the thousand small decisions that make up the guts of any commitment– after the rush of initial enthusiasm, the essential drudgery of sustained action (carrying water, chopping wood.) Today I want to speak to two old friends of mine that come up once you’re committed – I call them the “Two Pernicious Voices.”
Both of these are perfectly natural “protector” voices that may serve us well in other contexts. But as often happens, they can grow to be toxic, which can be particularly difficult to see because they’re also ventriloquists, speaking to us in our own voices.
The first of these Pernicious Voices I call the “voice of no.” It always seems to be that there are far more reasons not to do something to than to do it. I’m busy, I’m tired, I hurt, or my own personal favorite, I’ll do it right after I take care of …
I once heard the adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes (yikes, what a name!) give an interview. He’d just finished running seven marathons in seven days on, I believe, seven different continents. The interviewer asked him how he kept going, and he answered that “the little voice that says ‘stop’ must be ignored.”
How about the little voice that says don’t even start? And what a persistent little bugger he is, always reminding me that my life would be so much simpler, so much easier if I just skipped this bit. And smaller, and less interesting, and basically of less us to anyone.
But like I said, this little rodent speaks in MY voice, and he’s very much “on my side.” So I’ve developed a small test. Which choice (in the quasi-Shakespearean “to do or not to do”) will make my world larger? If I can go with that, regardless of the nagging sound of chewing coming from behind the walls in my head, it’ll probably turn out well.
The second Pernicious Voice is “the voice of perfectionism.” Ah, my old friend, “not good enough” sneaks out from behind the baseboard. Like his little brother, the “voice of no” this little guy takes a perfectly useful trait (for the voice of no– look before you leap; for perfectionism– the aspiration to do one’s best) and basically sharpens the handle of the knife. But perfectionism isn’t really about aspiration- it’s about fear; it’s about trying to get someplace other than the messiness of here, someplace where everything will be perfect and safe. Why even start- you’ll never be (fill in the blank). And if you do start, this Voice will suck all of the joy out of the process because it mutates life from a process into an imaginary and ultimately unattainable goal, it turns play into inevitable defeat.
The “voice of no” and the “voice of perfectionism”—the two Pernicious Voices — these are the voices of staying safe. They’re also the voices of boredom, of why bother. They gnaw rather than bite, but left unattended, they can undermine an otherwise good foundation. We can say no, we can yearn to be “perfect.” Or we can say yes, over and over again, to soaking ourselves in this blessed mess we call a human life, and like it or not, we’re each “all in” on that one from our very first uncertain breath.