The Perfection of imperfection: A surfer’s guide to child and youth care
Leland Maerz explores an ingenious and accurate analogy to child and youth care
wo years ago, when I started as a Child and Youth Care worker, I never imagined that this quote from an earlier academic paper of mine would gain such new relevance. I had just left four years of work in East Africa as an Anglican clergyman, moved to rural Nova Scotia to fix up a century old home and become a self-proclaimed ‘surfer monk’. I figured some shift work with adolescent youth would be a dignified way to pay the bills and facilitate my wave surfing addiction while trying to deal with the mixed sentiments I had been left with after working and studying in the developing world. While the experience of being a student, world traveler, and priest had left me with profound awarenesses of the contentment and beauty that come with relating to people in an intentional, vocational way, I often still struggled to understand a nagging discontentment with my own life.
As a youth care worker the opportunity to explore one’s own sublimity and absurdity seems almost an expectation. I liken stepping into our residential facility to being processed at airport security. It is definitely not just the kids who get challenged to account for where they have been, where they think they are going, and what they have been packing. Being as I am — tired of thinking up "workable compromises" — I have welcomed the challenges put to me by the residents, the team and the supervisors. Most notable are the constant reminders to become aware that no matter how ‘giving’ and well-intentioned I may seem, I am often in reaction to my environment, the people in it, and as a result (and without really knowing it), desperate to assuage my fears of being misunderstood and rejected. This is a hard thing to accept for someone who would like to be perceived as "cooler," smarter, and more independent — especially in the eyes of our residents who in many ways struggle similarly.
Admittedly there is a sort of release that comes when parts of your ‘self’ that you do not like to admit, or did not really even know about, finally get unpacked. I am learning incrementally that by graciously accepting our own so-called imperfections, imbalances, and misperceptions we, particularly as Child and Youth Care workers, are better able to attend to that vast realm of feelings within ourselves and in others.
Recently while resting on the beach and contemplating the surf, I concluded that the most powerful, most original, most stylish surfing occurs when surfers respond gracefully to their vulnerability to the wave and to their own imbalances while maneuvering the board. It occurred to me that no surfer, no board and no wave is ever the same or perfect. Perfection for a surfer is the unique manner in which weather, wave, board and rider respond to each’s imperfections and imbalances. The surfer intuitively enjoys, and is fulfilled by, the process of losing and regaining balance.
Could this be a clue to resolving the aforementioned discontentment? If we paddle out into the storm of our vocation invincible, seeking a safe, static perfection, it seems doubtful that we will ever be present enough to really share and enjoy something ‘real’ in our times of ‘aloneness’ and in our times of ‘togetherness.’ We will be too busy trying to gauge our successes and failures — ‘think’ our way to a destination we have predetermined is the one for us.
The general ethics of professional practice, codes of conduct, and our personal expectations and training in Child and Youth Care — though very necessary — may lead us to believe that this ‘perfection’ can be achieved and that we will all arrive unscathed, finally able to relax. No matter how subtle, belief in this type of perfection now seems to me about as feasible as our team finding a fool-proof system to balance the petty cash box or ensuring that every resident will perceive that they were served the same size pork chop. I seriously believe that there is a connection between our getting caught up in just trying to make things ‘safer’ and more predictable AND the fact that our work can quickly become sterile, our relationships ‘dependent’, strained and fake – nothing more than workable compromises between our professional ideals and the reality of our confused, fragmented selves.
So it is with gracious vulnerability that I believe I need to proceed; focusing more on learning to respond well to the imbalances in myself and in my environment, rather than merely striving to eliminate them once and for all. Such an approach may take us out of the frantic expectations and fears of the reflective mind, and into the whole ‘body’ of who we are as humans. As vulnerable ‘selves’ we might become pure potential, more able to forgive (ourselves and others), and therefore, prepared to listen and respond creativity to what is occurring around us. We may be enabled to transform our ‘doing’ and ‘thinking’ into ‘Being’. Perhaps, like the surfer, we can come to enjoy this process, and as spiritual beings (i.e., whole selves) become more contented and connected — "incarnate" as it were, within a complex ocean of relations.