My mom sent me a new tent for my birthday. It was lightweight and durable -- perfect for backpacking. Better yet, it was a two-person tent -- perfect for trips with a significant other.
So when the 9-5 work cycle started to wear on me, I took two days off, and my girlfriend and I drove to Point Reyes National Seashore. It's a special enclave of beauty in the already beautiful Northern California. We hiked to our campsite -- a small plot of land on a ridge overlooking an expanse of trees and the Pacific. It seemed like it would be exactly the relaxing and refreshing escape I was craving.
But I found it harder to de-stress than I expected. The campsite floor was entirely dust, dirt and pebbles. I was hoping for a soft forest floor. I hesitated to pitch the brand new tent on this surface -- it was definitely going to get dirty. That's OK, I reasoned with myself. This is what tents are for.
Still, the annoying thoughts about protecting my precious new possession persisted. I tried to brush off the footprints we had left on it when we assembled it, but they were hardy. I asked Cecilia sheepishly if she could take off her boots before entering the tent. Heaven forbid the inside get sullied.
When she began to nap, I had nothing else to do but reflect on my feelings about the tent. I had come all this way into the wilderness to escape the tedium of daily life. To clear my mind, gaze at some stars, and cook quesadillas over a campfire. But the noisiness of civilization followed me even there. In the solace of the woods, my mind was abuzz.
It occurred to me that my impulse to preserve the perfect condition of the new tent was somehow related to my desire to be in total control of the circumstances in my life. For things to be just so, just how I like them. My room is organized. I do the dishes right after I cook. I strove for the highest grades in school. I found nothing wrong with the control I had over many aspects of my life. But, over time, I realized the trick was learning not to try to control what couldn't be controlled.
Letting go of control is difficult because it symbolizes something about our mortality, our smallness. Despite our best efforts, we are, at times, tossed about haphazardly by the sea of life, swayed by unseen currents and nearly sunk by unexpected waves. Things happen that are simply out of our control.
But, really, without those things, life would suck. Life would be bland, like a dry, mechanistic march. I wouldn't have a reason to get out of bed if I knew exactly what was going to happen today.
Striking a balance between controlling what we can and being completely flexible and accepting about everything else -- and learning the difference between the two -- seemed key to me. It opens you up to the mystery and joy that are present in each day, if we only look for them.
After this reflection, I glanced at the new tent, and the woman sleeping in it, with new eyes. It became clear how silly it would have been to waste this idyllic getaway with a special person being preoccupied with small, nagging thoughts about keeping the tent in factory-fresh condition. Once I let go of the unreasonable quest for perfection, I actually noticed where I was: breathing in slightly-salty ocean air, engulfed in ancient and mossy trees, smelling kind of bad and not caring, watching the sun dip into the Pacific. I finally actually was where I was -- a personal paradise of sorts.
It would be great if that tent could have remained in perfect condition. But it ended up being even better when the dirt on the tent stopped mattering so much and the larger perfection of the moment sunk in.
Perfection is an ideal for which to aim; a goal to keep in mind. But letting go of perfection waters the seed of an even deeper perfection; one that includes and envelopes imperfection. It gives us permission to cherish what is. And how we feel about what is -- what is real -- is the one thing we do have control over.
I'll take what's real over perfection any day -- dirty tents and all.