As an outdoor educator, I get this interaction all the time with school children. A child in my study group will see something very enticing in nature, be it a rock outcropping to climb or the edge of the water to explore, and they’ll look at me imploringly and ask ‘am I allowed to do that?’ They ask permission for they come from a world of rules and expectations enforced by supervisory adults. But in the realm of outdoor education, of course you’re allowed to do this, kid. You don’t need my permission to explore and wonder. The outside world is so full of fun and interesting things to interact with, and it’s my goal to encourage you to explore what’s there of your own volition. Boundaries about what you’re allowed to do or not only come into play when safety is on the line, and quite frankly, you can be very adventurous outdoors while still being safe.
When I am these children’s outdoor instructor, I momentarily become the supervisory adult figure in their eyes (and for a few hours at a time, I become the actual responsible party for their safety and well-being). As that adult figure, I am often viewed by them as the permission granter. But at my last outdoor education job, one of the program’s main objectives was to teach children to explore the natural world on their own accord. To discover their own limits and abilities. To get wet, messy, and uncomfortable. To understand their own power and agency, all in the context of the natural environment. The limitations for such explorations were dictated by maintaining acceptable behavior, both in terms of environmental Leave No Trace standards and the ethics of belonging to a safe learning community. What these kids often don’t understand is the incredibly wide range of things that are acceptable behavior. It’s okay to climb a tree. It’s okay to pick up insects. It’s perfectly acceptable to get your feet wet and clothes muddy.
The worlds of these children are likely structured a lot differently than at camp. Ours is an age of helicopter parenting and risk aversion, and the kids bring this ethos with them to camp. A lot of their lives are already dictated and laid out by permission-granting adults, and ‘no’ is a word quite familiar in their lexicon. If these children see something that intrigues them, they often look to the adult who is present to gain implicit or explicit permission that, yes, indeed, they are allowed to do this. They do not believe strongly in their own agency in decision making—instead, they are accustomed to following along the path of acceptable behaviors as dictated by adults, unlikely to deviate from that path. Hearing ‘no’ is a response they so often receive that many of these children don’t even bother to try asking if they can do something.
My analogy with children, of course, is not one-hundred percent transferable to adult life (children, after all, need a lot more guidance and boundaries) nor is every child the same, but the sentiment of seeking permission is quite relevant. Even though I’m an independent adult and have been for a few years, I still often feel like a child who still needs to seek permission in life. Somehow it still feels as if there is some authority, older and more powerful than me, hovering above watching me, ready to either grant or deny permission to do certain things available in adult life. As an adult who faces adult-size opportunities, I often have to stop and think to myself ‘am I really allowed to do this?’
Growing up, I was an extremely obedient child—not only to what the multiple adult authorities above me dictated, but also to what I felt was expected of me as a child. Upon becoming an adult, I realized that there really is no one left above me to grant permission to do things (save for legal authority, but that’s a different related subject). After age 18, you can sign on the dotted line yourself. You can grant yourself permission to do the things you desire to do. But becoming a legal adult doesn’t mean that all of a sudden you instantly become your own independent person; you are still subject to the ties of relationships with those who have ethical authority over you. Older adults, parents in particular, are still evaluating your actions with a critical eye. Your employer still has expectations for you to uphold as their subordinate. And most importantly of all, you still have to live within the realm of what greater society deems acceptable behavior and within the bounds of legality.
But even given all that…there is so much stuff that you’re still allowed to just up and do without even asking permission. The most compelling—and also frightening—example of this is that I could chose to create a child. Who granted me permission to have that option, seriously? Procreation is such a weighty decision that it really feels like the procreators ought to first write in to a governing board to get permission to reproduce. But oddly enough you can just go ahead and do it anyway. Exploring relationships is similar too. You don’t have to get your parent’s approval anymore to go out or to be back in time for a curfew. You are free to engage in relationships to the depth and level that you desire. Other, much less extreme examples of what you don’t need permission for exist as well. For example, as an adult you get to choose where you live. Again, there is no governing board that reviews applications for which geographical region you wish to reside in, nor do you need permission from a parent or teacher. You can just pack up and move house. You don’t need a conventional salaried job either—and whatever job you have, you don’t need to keep it forever. You are not an indentured servant to your employer; terminating employment agreements is always an option if the match is no longer right. Your free time is yours to explore your own interests as well. Set your own sleep schedule. Read whatever book you want to…or don’t read at all. Vacation somewhere obscure…or stereotypical, if you will. You don’t need people’s permission in order to determine if eccentric pastimes like playing accordion or LARPing are acceptable. Go ahead and do it.
So as an adult there are not specific people who reside above you with the final authority to either grant or deny you permission to do things. The choices are wide, and the choices are yours. But even then, the freedom to choose certain things still doesn’t mean that everything is a good option. I’m allowed to smoke cigarettes, for example, but I care not to do so because of health risks and a dislike of the activity. Even though we are free to choose, a wide swath of our decisions are nevertheless still based upon the general aura of what is acceptable to do in our society. But even then a lot of what society decries as irresponsible is still acceptable or optional behavior. Dumpster diving is still an oft-frowned-upon choice I will pursue. So is dirtbagging—living out of my car for stretches of time while playing in the outdoors. But so long as what you’re doing isn’t morally reprehensible or illegal, then you’ve got a lot of free reign of things you’re allowed to do.
You don’t need permission to do these things anymore.
Although sometimes it still feels like you need to get permission.
It’s tough sometimes being a perfectionist. The constant struggle of realizing that everything you are ultimately striving for will fall short of your expectations. The notion that everything, inevitably, has its flaws. That there is nothing in life you will encounter that will match your 100% ideal situation.
And maybe it’s hardest of all to be that perfectionist while coming of age. So many big life decisions are to be made in the process of adulting. Who do I want to be? What do I want to do? Where do I want to live? Who do I want to be with? These are some of the big unresolveds that those who are adulting face. To the idealist young adult, those questions must be answered with only one adjective: perfectly.
But here’s the trouble: perfection doesn’t exist. Or, if it does, I haven’t found it yet. Five years out of college for me now, and I’m still refining my answers to the fundamental questions of adulthood. I’ve still been on a quest to find the ideal situation for me, getting closer and farther away all at the same time.
This search for the 100% ideal situation is part of the reason I have been ambling around all this time with a resistance to settling down to one particular set of answers. To settle down, in a sense, is to accept something that is less than perfect. To settle is to give up the quest for the ideal situation early—to sell yourself short of your full potential. As that strident idealist, I’m unwilling to compromise on perfection. The end result of this, however, looks like I’m aimlessly wandering all over undecided on the big adult questions: where do I want to live, what do I want to do for a vocation, and what people do I want to surround myself with.
In all that time of trial-and-error, I would have thought that I’d have gotten a better definition of what is the one ideal for me. Instead, I’ve found that there are, in fact, a lot of different options that work surprisingly well for all of the major life questions. Each place I have lived has had its pluses and minuses. Each job I have worked has had its positives and negatives. All the people I have associated with have had their good qualities and their not so good qualities. Nothing I’ve found has ever been 100% perfect, in the sense that it was 100% perfect for me, in my characterization of the word. But from what I’ve found, a lot of options, while not being 100% ideal, have been much, much better than I could have ever anticipated.
Nor am I a flawless match for anything either. In my quest to find the ideal situation for myself, I also have to stop and acknowledge (though it can be difficult) that I myself am flawed and imperfect too. I have shortcomings as well. I can never be the perfect employee, the ideal friend, or the flawless member of a community. But it is heartening to know that these things don’t require perfection as a pre-requisite. Friends, communities, and employers aren’t looking for perfection; they’re just looking for your best effort.
So then, I suppose, settling for something less than ideal isn’t selling yourself short of perfection. Instead, it’s a realistic acknowledgement that nothing can ever be 100% ideal, especially from the start. We often take things to be just as we know them in the moment, but forget that everything is slowly growing and changing too. By settling down in a place, or in a job, or with a community, or with a person, you are acknowledging the fact that though the current situation may be less than ideal, in time and with work and effort the relationship between the two can grow and expand beyond any level it is at the start. And everyone’s idea of perfect is different too. Certain situations may match other people’s preferred ideals more than mine match theirs. But that’s part of the beauty in getting things to work—since we’re not all looking for the same perfect as each other, a degree of imperfection is—ironically—perfectly acceptable.
So maybe we should lower our perfectionist standards—not our hopes and dreams for perfection, but what level of idealism we find acceptable to make things work well. As that uptight perfectionist, it’s hard to settle for anything less than 100%. But even 85% ideal is still very high, especially considering that absolute perfection is unattainable. I was a straight-A student in high school. But when things got more difficult (and also more interesting and fulfilling) in college, I relaxed my uptightness and ending up learning to accept a few B’s here and there. And yet, even short of absolute perfection in the grade point average, I still grew incredibly as I found myself in some very imperfectly ideal situations outside of the guise of 100% perfect.