Monday, January 14, 2008


In grade school, I once had a teacher who never gave a perfect score.

“A perfect score,” she reasoned, “means you have no room for improvement. And the young graders that you are, you certainly have more than enough room for improvement.”

That is, of course, her opinion. But deep inside, I was head over heels in consternation and somehow thought she was losing her mind. This puny 9-year old is one hell of a perfectionist, and if given the chance, he’d have everything picture-perfect, thank you very much. So goes my erstwhile self-imposed 3-mistake rule in taking exams: 1 mistake – satisfactory; 2 mistakes – straighten up your act; 3 mistakes – CODE RED, CODE RED!

Anything beyond that was too horrible to even think about, a macabre contemplation on the Hadean waters of academic suicide. My mortal enemy was Alexander Pope’s venerable epigram: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” Every time someone casually mentioned it, I would silently cringe in derision and invariably come down with momentary tinnitus. Talk about radical perfectionism.

Imagine me, then, enforcing this gruesome concept, Hitler-style, over the years. Failure was simply not an option. I vigorously pursued everything at stake, and the extremely high standards I set for myself soon became a reluctant comfort zone, something I unconsciously imposed even on others. It didn’t help that I had typical Type A personality – prone to nervous breakdown, heart attack and chronic headache. My mom would sometimes shake her head and say, “You are competing with yourself,” but the mere shrug I gave almost implied the fact that perhaps, that’s just the way I wanted it to be. Soon, however, I realized that the whole get-it-100%-right thing is slowly taking its toll, ultimately ricocheting back to its original owner with a magnitude ten, nay, even a hundred, times greater.

The culprit: flaws.

Little, seemingly insignificant flaws.

Whether we like it or now, they come creeping into our lives one way or another. I used to metaphorically call them “the unseen gatecrashers of humanity” for the simple reason that they do just that: they gatecrash. Right into your head. Right in the middle of a succulent yet frivolous endeavor. And right smack into your own personal ivory tower so it’ll crumble and send you tumbling down, level-headed and feet planted on ground. What’s more, they force you to abandon spilt milk on the floor and proceed to the next best thing: Forgive yourself and move on.

Pope and his words.

Instinctively, the easiest way to face everything is to laugh it off. Think overused cliché: “Laughter is the best medicine.” No antidote like a well-deserved belly laugh till you roll over your seat and tears stream down your cheeks. In my case, I tend to intellectualize more, preferring to direct my energies towards understanding and shedding light on the issue. More often than not, however, I end up digressing and abandoning the cause. Inasmuch as I hated it, “perfect” had to fly out the window.

Because sometimes, you can never get quite as seamless as you would like to be. Because sometimes, it pays to pick the right battles. Because sometimes, just to survive, you have to play stoic and indifferent.

Not to say the road to remission had always been a smooth one. Sometime in high school, I scored 99 in a Trigonometry exam. The test was no piece of cake given the time constraints, and the appropriate emotion should’ve been one of smug satisfaction, not utter dismay. Mr. Conlu merely grinned and said, “You know, in many ways, 99 is the ideal score. Almost perfect, but still not there yet. That’s where the motivation is at its fiercest.”

He was right. It was a case of fanning the fire with more flames. The situation could go either way: The flames could rise higher and the fire could burn brighter, eventually morphing into an unstoppable, raging inferno. Or fate could pull off a sudden surprise by sending along a single whiff of air and snuffing things out into one big cloud of smoke.

For me, inferno sounds much better. And lucky that I kept the motivation running strong till the zenith was reached.

In many ways, I’m still a perfectionist. I continue to demand a certain level of performance from myself, and without knowing it, from others as well. The difference now lies in the way I have come to view flaws as friends, rather than fiends. And good thing, too, for med school is where you’ll see all your flaws laid out to no end, leaving you hanging on the edge of a cliff for dear life. To all the doppelgangers who have unwittingly played part of the Tampo-Zuniga firing squad, you make us wholly human. Erring humans. And nothing goes beyond that, unless we raise the bar higher in transcending mea culpa towards holistically and perfectly accepting our imperfections.

Which, by the way, is REALLY perfect.