A motley combination of Buzzfeed personality quizzes, neatly filled-in coloring books, and anecdotes from my childhood Sunday School teacher (who told me I always requested to sit in a chair instead of on the ground with the other kids so I wouldn’t get my dress dirty) inform me that I am, in fact, a perfectionist. I figured it out myself while counting how many computer tabs I had open as I poured over approaches to entering a club in New York City (obviously necessary considering my relative inexperience–plus it worked).
Research is my reflex before taking any step forward, whether that be cooking Jamaican curry chicken, going on a date with a complete stranger, or resolving a tiff with a close friend. I wrap myself in data like a blazer on my first day at a new job; it gives me structure and grounding within unfamiliar territory, the security of knowing I have prepared myself as much as possible to look and act the part and take action. The more I’ve taken inventory of my potential assets, deficits, and options before entering a new situation, the less it can hurt me if something goes wrong. Awareness is key. Once I am aware of where I stand and where I want to be, I know how I can improve.
At least theoretically.
Self-improvement is the mainline of the perfectionist. I can’t speak for all of us, but I know I constantly pin-point gaps in everything around me. I’m hyper-conscious of communication breakdowns, dissonances between what people say and how they act, dysfunctions in organization and government systems when things aren’t what they should be. And in the same way, my attention gravitates to the ways I need renovation.
Be less selfish with my time. Get back to writing. Reach out to that friend more. Stop overspending. Stop overeating. Move forward in my career. Finish that 3-year long project. Be more patient. Be more engaged with current events. Spend less time on social media. Be less afraid. Get back into the dating pool. Pray more. I run through my mental list of deficits, sigh, sigh, and sigh again, and outline how I’m going to do better.
And I DO do better…until I don’t. Every time I hit a crisis point, a disruption where things get off track after a season of progress, it’s like a switch flips in my brain negating all of that. Anything I learned, any way I grew no longer matters because I screwed up, and so now I have to start over again from the beginning, just like I would do with piano pieces as a kid when I missed a key. My thinking is dichotomous: either I’m living my best life or relapsing into old unhealthy patterns and checking out.
That’s the thing about perfectionism–there’s no room for mutual realities. Either I get it all right or I’m completely falling short. A setback equates to a failure, and constant setbacks in the same area draw me further into myself as I retreat into that familiar locked vault of self-scolding and resignation that I can never truly change.
I can’t change. I’ll never change. I slam against the wall of my faults and yearn for breakthrough.
Good and Faithful
I remember the first time I heard Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25. To sum it up, you have a master who gives his three servants different amounts of money (talents) to steward while he goes on a trip. One servant invests and trades the money and makes double the amount. The second servant does the same. The third servant who was given the least amount of money buries it.
So when the boss gets back, he meets up with his servants and tells the first two, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” But then he approaches the third servant who’s like, “Well…I know you’re a tough guy so I got scared and buried your money and here it is…?”
The boss’ reaction boiled down: “You could’ve at least invested the money so I could’ve gotten interest! Give the money to the other servant and cast this worthless guy out of my presence because even those who have nothing will have everything else taken away from them.”
I heard that passage and thought, “Ok…so if the master is supposed to be an analogy for God, then I don’t want to be that servant. Got it.” So with Matthew 25 as my lens, I strived to make the most of what I perceived was God’s investment in me. I cataloged the time I’d been given, the abilities and experiences, and outlined how they could be used effectively, what I could accomplish and what life benchmarks to reach. Hence the lengthy mental list I shared before.
What We Bury
It wasn’t until I experienced another setback three months ago (this time romantic) that I realized just how far and deep fear runs in my soul. My greatest fear is not being alone or unloved or even rejected. No, I am most afraid of amounting to a disappointment–to God, to others, and to myself.
I look at my life and see an unreliable investment. I’m the servant the master maybe shouldn’t have bothered with because the servant would only let him down again and again. And so I bury myself away, take shelter in distractions that can stimulate and entertain me so I don’t feel exposed as the broken person I believe I am.
Withdrawal is an all-too-human response to the anxiety we experience when we look at ourselves and see only what we lack. I remember a high school track meet where I was assigned to a 200-meters hurdles race. Frozen in terror because there was no part of me that believed I could do it, I hid in the school bathroom after burying my paper race number in the dirt. Distantly, I heard a megaphone announcing the race, heard my name called. I curled into myself as I sat on the toilet, waiting for it to be all over.
I wonder if Eve felt the same sensation as she hid from God in the Garden of Eden.
I wonder even now what would have happened if I had run the race. Would it have been the failure I expected it to be? I’ll never know. My hiding only fed my fear and reinforced my belief that unless I could do something perfectly, it wasn’t worth me trying it. Like the servant in Matthew 25, I chose to bury what I had been given (an opportunity) so there was no chance of me squandering it.
The problem with the fear-mongering involved in trying not to be “the bad servant” is that the anxiety about messing up or wasting your life soon becomes your god. What you do becomes definitive of your value rather than God’s view of who you are, and you will never be satisfied with yourself or think you are enough.
It took a friend’s tough-love and returning to the Bible for me to realize anew that God does not see me as a bad investment. Instead God’s words to humanity remind me that nothing I do can separate me from His love for me (Romans 8:35-39), that in full awareness of every wrong I’ve done or will do, Jesus saved me (Romans 5:1-11), and that He sees me as his child (John 1:12-13).
That is grace, that I fully inhabit the reality I’ve already entered–this new life with Christ. He invites me to let him in, let him be the author of my hope for myself and my future because only he can bring that kind of reassurance.
When I view my dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors as a wall I can’t break through, I forget that the breakthrough has already happened. Jesus IS my breakthrough. Jesus died because he knew my efforts to constantly improve myself were just a prison so he, the only perfect person, took all that fear and doubt and distortion on himself so that his goodness, his perfection, and his perfect love for me would define me instead.
That is what the Gospel story means, that Jesus is my breakthrough, and everything beyond the wall is simply daily life following him. I’m a once-dead seed with life breathed back into it, and it will be the journey of the lifetime to grow and flower with seasons of growth and seasons of stillness. But as long as I am in God, I am still alive–I don’t go back to death. There are still echoes of it in my stem when I’m tempted to retreat to my life before Jesus, the lies that kept me comfortable or made me feel like I had it all together, but that is a self who has already died, and I am no longer viewed as only broken.
Being Human (again)
I am a person in daily need of a savior, and that savior is not me. I don’t have it within me to fix myself, rid myself of selfishness and passivity and fear. I don’t have it within me to move through all my frustration and grief and dreaming alone–and I was never meant to. I can take responsibility for what I’ve been given to steward while acknowledging that I am not the master of my own fate. I don’t need to control everything, and neither do I need to shame myself when I feel like I’m not “living up to my potential” as if that is any more righteous.
God allows me to be human, imperfect and always learning, always growing, and he understands and gives space for my weaknesses because he’s strong enough to work through them. And every time I bury myself away out of guilt, God calls my name out, not to condemn me, but to welcome me back to Himself.
There are times where I’m Eve, running from God, hiding beneath leaves, afraid to be naked. There are times where I’m the servant in Matthew 25, terrified of letting his master down and unable to make use of anything he was given.
But Eve’s story doesn’t end with her hiding, and as a friend pointed out to me, the servant’s story doesn’t necessarily end with them being cast away by their master. On the other side of where the wall of text ends lies the Cross, and with that comes a thousand more opportunities to experience healing and flourishing with all we have been gifted.
I like to think that the next day the Master approached his shamed servant, placed talents in his hands and told him “These are for you. And even if it goes all wrong again, keep going. I will never leave you.”
It took me three months to finish this post because I was still in a place where I couldn’t wrap my mind around a reality where God was not disappointed in me. I couldn’t let the fear go, and so my writing stalled. If this post is published and you’re reading it now, it’s because God found me again-like He always does-and I’m no longer buried. Praise God for that.