One of the wonderful blogger/authors I follow invited other bloggers to submit posts about our “messy beautiful.” It took me about 10 seconds to identify mine
I have a sharp memory of breaking into hysterical, hiccupping sobs in my Honors English class during the Spring of my Junior year in High School.
The precipitating event was the announcement of a new assignment that was not scheduled on my calendar of homework/study time/SAT prep. My hormonally-unbalanced adolescent emotions, and my sleep-deprived, Type-A mind couldn’t cope with one more stressor and I broke down. I don’t even remember what the assignment was anymore, but I remember my grade once I recovered from my anxious wailing and completed it.
I got an A.
I know this because I always got an A. It was a compulsion that wouldn’t allow me to ever do the minimum, or to live with even one substandard performance. While school was the focal point for this obsession, it controlled the rest of my life as well, trapping me in the self-consuming fire of perfectionism.
If I didn’t do everything right, if I wasn’t perfect, then I was a failure. And I couldn’t let that happen.
Not that my life was really perfect. My teen years were bracketed by my parents’ divorce at age 12, and my father’s suicide at age 19: life-shattering traumas that were completely out of my control. So, understandably, my response was to clamp down on anything I could control… and do it perfectly. That way I could know I was still good enough.
Of course, it has been a long time since I was a teenager, and my life has changed so much. My arena for performance shifted from academics, to career, but more significantly the years brought the self-awareness that perfectionism was my enemy, not my salvation. Time also brought new challenges like marriage and motherhood: utterly important efforts for which no grades are issued. It was disorienting to know the most important work I was doing with my life was not open to reassuring evaluation. My need for perfection was a source of more anxiety than reassurance.
But… tightly cherished coping mechanisms are so hard to release, especially when they mutate into new, more satisfying forms. I could accept that perfection was not a realistic goal. Being right on the other hand – that was something that could give me the security I craved. I pursued masters degrees and career opportunities that reinforced this instinct. As an anti-poverty researcher and advocate, I could stand firm on my moral high-ground and lecture those who were too ignorant or too self-involved to see the rightness of my progressive convictions.
Then came one of those explosive miracles God sometimes uses to knock down our temples built on the sand of self, and rebuild us on a much-more solid foundation.
My husband was offered a career opportunity that excited us both, and we made the decision to move to Italy for three years. Three years of beauty, and discovery, and enjoyment… and also three years to lose all the markers of achievement and forums for proclamation that I so cherished:
- I resigned from my job – a blessed chance to soak up my children’s early years, and a terrifying loss of my non-Mommy identity.
- I tried to learn Italian – a lifelong dream to become bilingual that was so much harder, and more painful, and more humiliating than I ever imagined.
- I lost my connection to my knowledge base – my life contracted to the little matters of cleaning house and school plays, a life I loved that still left me feeling small.
Perhaps what rocked me most of all, however, was the change of church environment. We moved from an incredibly warm and nurturing community to a church of fire and brimstone teaching and precious few relationships. The church selection was a consequence of circumstance and language; the relationships were more our fault, since we weren’t sure we wanted to let these fundamentalist people into our lives. In the end, I did let a few in. I am so glad that I did.
Relationships were the perfect antidote to a spiritual battleground that could have torn me apart.
My controlling need to be right – in my theology, in my biblical interpretation, in my practice, in all of it! – was confronted by preaching just as convinced of a mandate to declare TRUTH without apology. It was a grating combination.
I spent nearly a year squirming in my seat each Sunday night, biting my tongue to hold back rebuttal verses and contextual arguments. It was an effort to suppress my controlling need to always prove I was right, but I didn’t actually engage in these hypothetical debates. The one time I had tried, the preacher acknowledged my right to disagree, but made it clear he wasn’t backing down from his responsibility to preach THE TRUTH.
I felt battered and abused, and sometimes wondered why we were even going to church. In a season of life when all my comfortable markers of success has been stripped away, the last thing I needed was a church that continually questioned the validity of my salvation. I needed a church that would support me and affirm me; I needed a God who had created me with gifts and intelligence, not one who demanded that I reject my mind to prove my faithfulness.
This story could have ended very badly, with a broken woman and an abusive church and the choice to either reject my faith or reject myself.
Instead, I found the miracle of imperfection. In a tiny woman’s Bible study in Basiglio, Italy, I formed relationships with women with whom I deeply disagreed … and those relationships weren’t about being perfect or right. They were about being present. We argued, certainly, and in those arguments I sometimes offered compelling arguments… and sometimes came up short. I sometimes lost the game of proof-texts, and floundered in trying to explain my disagreements. Our frame of reference was so wildly different that in the end all we could appeal to was the one thing we had in common: God.
What a gift it was to realize that my imperfection, my lack of authority and winning arguments, my need to fall back on my trust in the way God has loved and guided me so far… this was my source of security in my faith.When it wasn’t about mastering tough theology in seminary, or leading adult forum at church, or getting it all right, all I could fall back on was “because God.”
Because I know God.
Because I hear God’s voice in the quiet of my soul.
Because even when I get it wrong, I know God gets it right.
Because God made me imperfect on purpose.
Because God is what gives me value.
I have a soft memory of tears welling up from my soul and spilling out in prayer as I sat curled on my bed in my Milan apartment. God I’ve tried so hard and it’s so painful and I feel like I don’t really know anything anymore. I don’t know what to do and I don’t know how to cope and I need you!
The precipitating event was a fear that maybe the preacher was right; that maybe I’d been wrong all this time; that all my efforts to know, and to master, and to argue my understanding of faith were all efforts in the wrong direction. The insecurity was devastating and I cried out from the pain of my own uncertainty.
I remember exactly the response I received. “I made you just as you are and I want you to use your mind, and your heart, and your voice to know me and to make me known. And I want you to know you won’t always be right. Being right is not what saves you. I do that.”
So, so, so much better than always being right.
This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!