I spent a good deal of my twenties and thirties running, along with fantastically energetic and creative colleagues, our school Cub Pack. We had heaps of fun doing campfire cooking (I never realised how useful this would be but I regularly find myself calling on this knowledge now at family camping trips and garden bonfires), playing wide games in the woods and learning useful skills. Each week, we would end our sessions with a sixer calling out (in great excitement as this was always a huge honour), “Cubs – do your best,” and the remaining cubs replying, “We will do our best.”
At the time, I found this quite inspiring. As a young teacher, I, too, was keen to do my best, all the time, in everything I did. The children I worked with were expected to do their best and reassured that this was all anyone could ask. I was proud of this ethos. It made sense to me. It fostered a sense of purpose and energy.
But is it flawed?
I can see many moments in life where it is important to be driven and ambitious, and many careers where this is of high value. Perhaps, though, I have come to view life in a different way now, and I’m beginning to question how healthy it is to live in this way all the time. In reality, probably we are all doing the best we can, most of the time, but I’m not sure it needs to be a conscious practice.
I wondered, the other day, what it might be like to get up every day thinking that everything I did had to be the best I could possibly do it. Imagine if every time you do the washing up it has to be the absolutely most spectacular washing up you can manage, with the most gleaming dishes, time and care and attention lovingly given to each fork and plate. Then, you read your toddler a story, but instead of just enjoying the time together, you must deliver the performance of your life. Afterwards, you go to a meet up with friends, where you must be the wittiest, cleverest, most attentive person there. You make lunch. This, too, must be the most delicious, balanced and nutritious meal. You take an exercise class and each stretch or movement must be flawless; you do some craft or sewing and each stitch must be perfect. Your child comes to you with a problem and you must be the best listener.
It’s a pretty exhausting, performance-centred way of viewing life, isn’t it? There’s a lot of emphasis on delivery and results, and it rather shifts focus from meaningful practice and relationships.
Recently, we visited Hemingford Grey Manor, where Lucy M. Boston’s daughter-in-law showed us incredible patchworks the author had created. Her early designs were scrabbled together from what was available in the war years – dusters, dishcloths and tea towels, because she didn’t want to use up her clothing coupons – and gradually, they become more and more intricate. Lucy was a highly accomplished craftswoman who spent years honing her skills and was still sewing into her late eighties. Diana Boston, our tour guide, said, as she revealed the beautiful designs, “It’s amazing what you can do with something you love when people just let you get on with it, isn’t it?” and this really made me think.
I wonder if this is a more healthy way to be – enjoy pursuing the things we love and feel pride in our blossoming skills, and perhaps the best will follow.