I’ve been working on this essay, making notes on a waterproof notepad in my coat pocket as I walk around the reclaimed quarry, now a wetlands park, near my house in the morning.
On one of my walks, my friend and priest joined me. I tried to explain what I was writing about, how I’ve been drawn to this metaphor of the reclaimed quarry. As a child I grew up near one such project, but always dismissed it. I used to say that when I grew up, I’d live somewhere wilder, more natural. And here I am, raising my three children near just such a place.
It’s perfection versus redemption, she said kindly, and I was floored.
That’s exactly it.
Lately I’ve been more and more struck by the ways in which perfectionism colors so much of what I do, see, think. From conversations I’ve had with other women, I’ve started to think that this is a symptom of living in the toxic sludge of our industrialized, patriarchal culture. I know I’m not alone.
I also know that perfectionism doesn’t define me. That voice that says I just need to be better cannot define me if I turn to God, and away from the destructive voice that tempts me to think I am only deserving of love if I am perfect.
Today, I went for my morning walk and took a minute to read the day’s devotion in Forward Day by Day. The scripture read: “So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
The devotion writer went on to reflect on the impossibility of those things. No one can do them. Jesus was the only perfect one, and he came to free us from ourselves, simplifying those commandments into these: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
“In our desire to meet these requirements,” the devotion author writes, “God is pleased, even when we fail.” Then he closes with a quote from Frederick Buechner: “The final secret, I think, is this: that the words ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ become in the end less a command than a promise.”
Those last words fell deep this morning as I looked out at the calm water. There was one fisherman on a far bank, the first person I’d seen that day. There were little sparrows zipping in and out of the willows. There was the sound of a leaf blower somewhere, and traffic. There was the tick of my watch, my inner knowing that I had ten minutes before I needed to be home, back into the ongoingness of pandemic parenting, so that Lyle could go to work.
These words calmed me. They unraveled, for just a moment of clarity, the tangled threads of my longings: to hear and know God’s voice, to know God’s will for me, to have a clearer sense of purpose in my writing and mothering, to better serve God in my community and in all my relationships. My longing to know I am serving God well, that I am going to God in prayer not just for myself, but not just for others, either. I came to see how even in my deepest longings, perfectionism keeps me from accepting Grace.
These words today assured me that not only do my efforts please God even when I fail, but that it is God’s promise, it is God’s will that I will love God. Even this God will do for me.
In the space that my longing makes, within its contours, this is where God enters. Maybe I will always feel scattered, tangled, maybe I will always have this sense that if only things were different, or maybe if I tried harder, then I will know God’s will and love God better. But here in that question, Grace appears again. Jesus appears and says, “Even this I will do for you. Even this I have already seen, loved, and covered.”
Things will never be perfect, including my perfectionism, and God says, I want you to live and love anyway. In doing this, you serve me.
Written on February 26, 2021