We’re three French braids in to the Friday morning rush when she says it. Braiding my nine-year-old daughter’s hair started in the downstairs bathroom. Do’s, redo’s, teary eyes and a tight-fisted, straight armed stomp up the stairs followed. In her upstairs bathroom, we stand, defeated, in front of the mirror when she lets it out: “I don’t want to want perfect.”
The current and third braid isn’t perfect. I am no pro stylist, but as a mother of two girls who love to dance and act, I have a few skills when it comes to buns, braids and twists. In the School of Little Girl Locks, I consider the French braid entry-level. I have an inkling that her six words are about more than an imperfect hairdo.
In the mirror, she sees a girl defeated by perfectionism. I stand behind her – a head taller, a little further away- and I see the familiar female struggle: a skeptical, tumultuous relationship with desire.
I untwist the braid and scoop dark blonde waves into her signature high ponytail. As a faint smile emerges and her hair swings free, she says someone recently told her that her hair was frizzy. Now she strives for a tamed, smooth frame around her face, not a single escaping strand. But striving is not the same as wanting. What she really wants – even though she doesn’t know it – is something different: the freedom to be herself.
Wanting is complicated. Sneaky little shoulds insert themselves in front of our desires and act as if they have been there all along. Their mere presence changes everything. Is it, I want my hair to be perfectly smooth, or I should want my hair to be perfectly smooth? Do I want this career move? Or should I want it? Is this the kind of mom I want to be? Or is there a should or two in there? Both feel mostly true, so does it even matter if I want it vs. believing I should want it?
Because here’s the thing about those sneaky shoulds: with them comes compromise.
A favorite artist-dreamer of mine, Elle Luna, puts it this way:
“Should is how other people want us to live our lives. When we choose Should, we’re choosing to live our life for someone or something other than ourselves. The journey to Should can be smooth, the rewards can seem clear, and the options are often plentiful.”
Wait. Clear rewards and plenty of options. That doesn’t sound like compromise. See how tricky this is?
Should can seem okay because it defends desire, in a tangible, explainable, Yes! That makes so much sense! way. If we dare to invite shoulds to the conversation, they are happy to join in and do what they do best: make a case for what we want. They tell us all the things a French braid will do for us – take away the frizz, free us from the worry about what someone else will think, and look better too. They present menus full of good options: one braid or two, regular or reverse, back or side.
In other words, shoulds take the straight and narrow path to “look over here.” They say nothing bad, untrue or hard to believe. They simply distract. They are so skilled at explaining that they don’t need to convince. In fact, they reassure.
And they make us compromise.
Because the thing shoulds don’t get is that our true desires are pure. They don’t need to be explained, analyzed or defended. They just are. If we don’t trust our desires for what they are and, instead, give in to trying to figure out why they are, we mutate them into plans of action that make a lot of sense but lead us away from ourselves.
When we start down the road of justifying what we want, the compromise begins. By coming up with reasons for our wanting, we change the wanting itself. And our path starts to turn, ever-so-slightly, until we find ourselves in front of the mirror, confused and defeated.
Let me give you a personal example. Ever since my love of reading began (which, sadly, was not until age twenty, thanks to high school required reading like Last of the Mohicans and Watership Down), I have collected passages from books that I love. That alone may sound somewhat normal for a writer, but when I tell you that I am not exactly picky about how many words I save from each book and that my library card number is one of three sets of digits I have memorized (along with my social security and credit card numbers), it may cause you to wonder. (Thank God for those colorful Post-It tabs and the Evernote!) Add to that the pre-laptop hours spent copying paragraphs into spiral bound notebooks and the detail that this habit of collecting words started nearly two decades before I even considered becoming a writer, and I start to wonder. What made me go to such great lengths to save other people’s words? I rarely, if ever, went back and looked at them. Why did I keep doing it?
My best answer: unquestioned desire.
If, over those twenty years, I had tried to explain why I spent my time this way or, worse, why I wanted to, I fear I would have stopped. Even now, looking back, I can’t come up with a why besides the clichéd “I did it because I couldn’t not do it.” From this seat, I can easily see the benefits to a writer that come from taking on the role of scribe for half of your life, but I can’t explain why I did what I did then.
I’m just glad I did.
At forty-two, this is what I know about pure, soul-born desire: it doesn’t need or want justification. It just is. Acting on its behalf may seem weird or pointless, but trusting it leads us closer to our true selves.
So, tune into the things you can’t or don’t want to explain. And don’t.
But do them anyways.