By Lynn Ingram
I went back to college at mid-life. I had plans to get more of an education, to add something a bit more meaty, more meaningful, maybe even more marketable to the bachelor’s degree I earned decades ago. Most of my friends thought that what I was doing was getting a master’s degree in psychology, and truth to tell, I myself was under that impression for quite a while. In a very literal sense, that was what I was after, and what I eventually acquired – despite my very real and not unfounded fears that I might run hard up against some impossible course, or that I might be so obstinate or somehow unruly as to get fired from my eventual internship, or even somehow manage to fail my comprehensive exams. None of that happened, although there were a couple of close calls, but those are tales for another day.
But the most significant things I learned came from a course for which I never registered. It wasn’t in the university catalog anywhere. Nobody told me I’d be taking it. I’m not even sure what its name is—but I am pretty certain it taught me the most important lessons I’ll ever learn.
I learned how to live.
I learning how to let go of some long and dearly held ideas I had about myself. One of those long-held beliefs—and I’m talking here about long-held with a clenched iron fist that gave up nothing—was that my academic performance had to be perfect and that the only grades worth having were 100s and great big fat As. Throughout grade school and high school and college—the first time around—those things came easily, so easily that they became part of my identity, part of my value as a human being. You know: “She’s the smart girl.”
I was more than a bit surprised when those perfect grades didn’t come so easily or so often in graduate school, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still really like it when they did show up. Truly, though, it was those other grades, the ones that missed the mark—my self-imposed mark, my own personal standard of excellence—by a little or a lot, that really taught me something. The obvious lesson there was one that many people already know—that you really learn and never forget those things that you missed, those things that you have to go back over to find out what it was you didn’t understand. Still, there was something bigger than that at work, something that it took me a little longer to recognize, to fully appreciate. It was a little bit of ease, a little bit of comfort that surprisingly appeared when I knew that I had done the very best that I could do, given the time I had and the other demands on that time, and that that my best was good enough.
Then, that lesson went a step further one day when my mentor asked me what would happen if I chose to not say “good enough” but instead to simply say “good”. The enough implied that my effort was somehow still lacking, and that was not necessarily so. The world didn’t tilt on its axis when I didn’t perform perfectly. What’s more, neither do I, any more. And I used to. Oh, boy, did I ever used to. My personal axis could develop some amazing tilts when my idea of perfection was missed. And none of that tilting was any fun at all. For me—or for anyone around me.
Another neat lesson that showed up in that process called graduate school was how wonderful it felt to struggle and strive with a bunch of other people who were trying to accomplish the very same thing that I was. We helped each other out, we tried to explain the tough stuff to one of our number who didn’t quite get it, we commiserated and cried when the going was hard and when there were 10 more things to do than there were hours to do it in, we celebrated each other’s triumphs even when—sometimes, especially when—our own performance was far, far from anything that looked triumphant. We cared. We were a team. We hung together.
And another one: sometimes, there was something more important than my next assignment or study time. Sometimes, it was something so important that it not only meant that the assignment didn’t get done really well; once in a while, it didn’t get done at all. Sometimes that something more important was listening to someone else. Sometimes it was taking a walk on the beach or putting the books down for a while and planting a few bulbs.
Graduate school gave me something more important than a new degree, something more important than a pretty new diploma in an impressive frame, something more important than a license to practice a new profession. Graduate school gave me a better Lynn. I like me better now. I like this person who doesn’t have to be perfect, who has learned to climb down off that pedestal of perfection she had perched herself up on for so many years. I like this person who has learned to slow down a little bit, to balance what has to be done with what needs to be done.
Every now and then, in some still and quiet moments, I can’t help but wonder: Was that what the designers of our curriculum had in mind all along? While I was busy thinking that there was all this careful attention to making sure we got a class in this and a class in that and that we covered all the bases, did they know all along that the classes and the thesis and the lab work were just the vehicles to shape us all into more humane and authentic human beings, and that if that transformation could occur, the odds were pretty good that we’d become the kinds of helpers that could walk effectively with other people through the troubles of their lives? I don’t imagine that I’ll ever actually pose that question. That’s one I think I can satisfactorily answer for myself.
A native Carolinian, Lynn Ingram’s work has appeared in a number of publications including Sasee, The Charlotte Observer, Progressive Farmer, and Lake Wylie Magazine. She is a psychologist in private practice in Wilmington, and she teaches psychology at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. When she’s not writing or sorting out the secrets of human nature, she gardens, dances and reads.