The Woman I Always Wanted to Be—And It’s Not Charlize Theron

“This is a process, not a product,” the affable sixty-something speaker tells his rapt audience. “Progress, not perfection, is my mantra.”

Sounds like a twelve-step-program meeting, but Dave (not his real name) is actually addressing a bunch of us at a Fat Losers meeting (not its real name). Today’s topic is setting realistic weight-loss goals.

Yeah, I’m down with that. Slow and steady wins the race. A pound or two a week—at that rate, I should be at my goal weight by 2020, but, hey, it’s progress, right?

Perfection is overrated, I tell myself. I look around at all the other Fat Losers in the room and note the variety of body shapes and varying levels of fitness. We’re now writing down our goals for the summer. Mine is about eating healthier, increasing my exercise. Stuff to make me feel better.

And I am already feeling better about myself. I’m taking control, letting go of unrealistic expectations and cultural stereotypes of female perfection. I’m energized, encouraged, hopeful . . .

Then I notice the oversized poster on the wall to my right. A Scandinavian Amazon with a bleached-teeth smile gazes smugly down at me. She is tall, thin, blond, and young. Four out of four things that I am not. Three of four things most of my friends are not. Her name is Angela, and in large capital letters she proclaims: “NOW I’M THE PERSON I ALWAYS WANTED TO BE.”

Whaaa?

Let’s back up a minute here. Dave’s just been telling us to forget about product and perfection, but Angela here has a different story. If I stick with Fat Losers and do what they tell me, I can shed not only my old weight but my old self as well! I can become a whole new person! Maybe they’ll let me be Charlize Theron. My husband would like that.

Twenty minutes later I’m contemplating me in Charlize Theron’s body as I leave the Fat Losers meeting and head to the Pretty and Chunky (not its real name) swimsuit store nearby. I didn’t plan it this way, it just worked out that I would be trying on swimsuits right after standing on a scale and seeing the results of a week’s worth of stress-related bingeing on cheese, chocolate, and pasta. I’ve been dreading this day for months, but my old suit has been repaired and stretched out so many times it’s threatening to disintegrate the next time I in step into the pool.

I discover I’ve had to go up a size in swimsuits.

“This brand runs small,” the petite salesgirl says apologetically. What would she know about plus sizes? My neighbor’s Border collie weighs more than her.

No three-way mirrors in the dressing rooms, which is probably a good idea in a store called Pretty and Chunky. I’m craning my neck, trying to see my backside. Just as well I can’t see the whole thing full on. I wish I could hire someone to try on swimsuits for me. Maybe Charlize Theron. My husband would like that.

I think of Angela, lucky girl, who’s become the person she always wanted to be. I’d settle for just having the ass I used to have.

I decide to buy the smaller suit. I know I’ll be able to fit into it soon enough. After all, it’s about progress, not perfection.

Dave told me so.

Welcome to the Imperfect Buddhist

“I’m practically perfect from head to toe,
If I had a fault it would never dare to show,
I’m so practically perfect in every way.” —Mary Poppins

“If I were a saint—which maybe I want to be, maybe I don’t—I would be like Augustine. He knew there was good in him, and he knew there was some not so good. And he wasn’t gonna give up his earthly pleasures before he was good and ready. Make me good, God, but not yet.” —Nurse Jackie

“Each of us is just this paradoxical mixture of confusion and wisdom; of the ability to be very cruel and the ability to be very kind. We are just such a mixture of things.” —Pema Chödrön

What do Mary Poppins, a drug-addicted TV nurse, and an American Buddhist nun have in common?

You might say, “Absolutely nothing,” but I see a deep interconnection. These three divergent quotes each reflect a piece of a timeless, immutable truth: that to be human is to be imperfect. As Ernest Kurtz writes in The Spirituality of Imperfection: Humans  embody a paradox, for we are “less than the gods, more than the beasts, yet somehow also both.”

In other words, we’re just like the Taoist yin/yang symbol, the circle enclosing black and white. We contain both shadow and light, which combine to make the whole. We might consider that we will never eternally “get it together, get it right.” That to aspire to be “perfect” and cut away all that we deem as “bad” is to deny our very nature. By doing so we can spend a lifetime pushing the wrong rock up the wrong hill; a self-improvement Sisyphus fighting an uphill battle that we can never win.

I know this is true, because I’ve been pushing that rock for decades, and boy, are my arms tired. And I’m finally figuring out that I’ve been using a flawed strategy guaranteed to perpetuate my pain.

I’ve been trying to be perfect—with mixed results. So as of today, June 7—which also happens to be my birthday—I’m done with it. And I’ve created a new name to mark this major transition. I’m calling it my rebirth-day!

In “The Imperfect Buddhist,” I invite you to join me in exploring what it means to fully embrace our human being-ness. With all its contradictions and messiness and paradoxes and loose ends and cellulite and flabby arms. Don’t expect that we’ll actually end up at a specific destination, because on this trip, the journey IS the goal!

I believe there isn’t anything in our experience that can’t help us awaken to our true nature—our basic goodness—which is really what I’m talking about here. So “The Imperfect Buddhist” will draw upon a wide variety of sources in this exploration. Much of my understanding of who we are and what our place is in this world is informed by Buddhist teachings and practices. But I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist. Just as I wouldn’t call myself a Sufi, or a Hindu, or a Jew, or a Christian—although these wisdom traditions and many others have provided invaluable guidance and inspiration along the way. As have poetry and literature and music and movies and twelve-step programs and circles of people just like you and me simply trying to figure it all out one more time.

I confess that I do have one goal in creating “The Imperfect Buddhist.” It’s embodied in my personal mission statement: “My mission is to write and speak with wisdom, heart, and humor to inspire, encourage, and uplift.”

So grab a snack and fasten your seat belt: It’s gonna be a bumpy—and fun—ride!