“Mei-Mei, do you want more cereal?” I asked, during one of our usual hurry-or-we’re-going-to-be-late-but-don’t-rush-eat-properly school day mornings.
“Mmmuhhmmhuh,” I heard, as she faced the back porch where a squirrel had skittered across.
“Mmmuhhumhuh,” I heard again. Was her mouth full of food, or did I need my hearing checked?
“Mei-Mei! Do you want more cereal, YES or NO?”
“I said yes!”
“Mei, you need to actually say, yes or no, and face people when you speak, so they can actually understand you. It’s how we show respect. Got it?”
“What did I just say?”
“Answer yes or no and face you when I talk.”
…Minutes pass, coffee, cereal, packing lunch… “Mei, do you want applesauce in your lunch?”
I’ll admit I lost it a little just then. We just had this conversation, no? How many times do I have to say it (this was not the first)? I managed to not make her feel too bad, but frustration loomed over us both as we lugged our backpacks out the door. In the car she mused, “Sometimes I think people expect me to be perfect.” Ouch. How nice of her to couch it in general terms to spare my feelings. After acknowledging that ‘people’ in fact included me, she gave another example. “My teacher, Mrs. Blank, says nobody’s perfect, but then she gets mad when we do things wrong.” What’s up with that?
I know I’m not perfect, and I get mad at myself when I make mistakes—the self-talk can be downright abusive at times. My patients know they are not perfect, and I witness how they shame themselves over their unhealthy habits. How exhausting and unnecessary. None of us should be this hard on ourselves. And we still need to reconcile our behavior: If we’re not aiming for perfection, then what? Why bother, what is the goal? How do we move on from our mistakes?
After a particularly dismal volleyball practice my freshman year in high school, I thought for sure they would kick me off the team. At 5’2” and more of a math nerd than an athlete, I considered it a miracle that I got to play at all, and I felt I had to prove my worthiness again every day. The varsity coach, Bubba, gave me the best possible gift in these words: “Bring what ya got.” Every day, just do your best. Some days will be better than others, and as long as you bring what you have and offer it humbly, nobody can ask any more of you. You are worthy already, and you can still work hard toward improvement—of skills, teamwork, self. Wow, you mean you won’t throw me away if I have one hard day (week, month, year, life)? How comforting, how liberating!
I said some fumbling version of this as we pulled up to the school that morning. “Just do your best, try to remember why we do these things,” or something like that. I didn’t want her to feel bad about herself all day because of one mistake, or worse, feel that it would somehow cost her my love. I’m grateful for the reminder. When I see shame in my patients’ faces, having lost no weight and with cholesterol numbers as high as ever, I can remember that we’re all just doing our best every day. What got in the way? What do they need to reset and restart?
How can I help?