Failure isn’t an option. At least, it never has been much of one for me.
I am a perfectionist; anyone who has more than a cursory knowledge of me (most of you reading this post probably fall into that category) knows that. I maintain good grades, involve myself in a number of extracurriculars and work as an RA in addition to performing my duties as a student, read voraciously when I can, observe my religion with what I believe to be devotion, and generally strive to be the best person I can be, the person God calls and wants me to be.
Today, though, I did something I have rarely done before in my life: purposefully and intentionally fail.
I got an email on Monday about an essay contest for college, graduate school, or seminary students from a religious journal entitled First Things (which from my brief investigation looks like a well written and fascinating journal, so check it out, if you’re into theology). The essay, a 2,000- to 2,500-word response to one of three selected quotations, was due today, Wednesday, June 15, 2016. Inspired by the challenge of writing a unique, profound essay in my free time over the next two days (I have a summer job that takes eight hours of each weekday), I promptly set to work–and then decided last night to give up the whole project.
Sure, two days is not an ideal amount of time to write an essay responding to a quotation when you have a full-time job and household duties, even if it is a personal work not needing citations or cover pages. Moreover, I am a tortuously slow writer, often taking several hours just to conceive, mentally revise, write/type, and then physically revise an introductory paragraph. Even personal writings like this that come straight from my head go through several mental and on-screen edits. However, I have often taken on projects, if not writing tasks, on similarly short notice and realized them rather successfully each time. Why was this time different, then?
First, I was tired. My job involves physical labor that, while not arduous, leaves me ready for Internet-surfing, reading, eating, and sleeping, not paper-writing. Second, I kept distracting myself with other activities such as the aforementioned as well as the seemingly universal bane and boon to the existence of people my age in the U.S.: Netflix. Third, and most importantly, I simply decided that it was okay for me not to do this.
Now, that last decision does not sound momentous or shocking, but it was to me. I was told many times as a child and subsequently drilled into myself that quitting is tantamount to sin, that not giving your all to every opportunity that comes your way is a sign of laziness, and that “good enough” is not enough for anything. No, I have not gone eager-beaver into every single activity in which I have participated through my 20 years on the planet, but I have almost always tried to engage in whatever I’m doing, utilize my skills for the situation at hand, and excel in some form of other. By excelling, I could stand out. I could gain admiration and praise. I could move ahead in life. I could earn love.
Thus, to turn down the chance at winning an essay contest–or even just participating in one and receiving some free issues of First Things in return–seemed like a rejection of my values, my family and friends, and my potential, even if doing so gave me less stress and more sleep for two days. I felt (and still somewhat feel) guilty of a grand sin of omission, as though I had passed by a burning building full of people screaming for help without stopping to assist them or even call 911. One part of me is still yelling that the very eyes of the loving and gracious God whom I worship and want to follow all the days of my life are on me, disappointed, hurt, and angry, wondering why I rejected the gift sent my way.
I can look at this inner turmoil from the perspective of most other people and say with them, “Why would anyone feel so much guilt over such a non-issue?” or “He seriously needs to take a chill pill.” Believe me, I know that this whole situation is inane and that I am beautifully living out the cliche of making mountains out of molehills, but this is how I feel now and every single time I perceive myself falling short of perfection. As you can imagine, it happens quite a bit.
Every day I try to remind myself that I am loved, if not by any human being than always, unconditionally, and infinitely by God; that making mistakes and sinning is part and parcel of being human (unless you happen to be Jesus regarding the latter); that I do not have to be, should not be, and do not want to be perfect; that God will give me the grace to fully realize myself and rejoice forever in the presence of the Divine if I choose to accept that grace; that I am good enough.
Most of the time these attempts work. I connect with and (I think) brighten the days of the people around me in a healthy way. I find moments of joy in the everyday–the dappling of sunlight through a canopy of leaves, the sound of wind flowing through trees, the laughter of friends, the silence in the midst of prayer. I make a small but important difference in the world just by being me, and this difference often seems positive.
At many instances, though, I find myself flailing, falling, failing. I am weak, petty, aloof, ugly, self-righteous, greedy, annoying, gluttonous, slothful, judgmental, stupid, and just plain mean. I don’t do enough things at school or home. I don’t volunteer in any significant way (never been on one mission or service trip). I don’t try hard enough to interact with people and make them feel welcome. I don’t relax enough and let go of my false sense of control. I don’t hang out enough with friends; I don’t have enough friends. I don’t talk enough; I talk too much. I waste my time and don’t utilize my God-given gifts. I have the temerity to proclaim myself religious and then sin according to my religious values. I don’t recycle enough; I pass by litter without picking it up. I regularly go two miles above the speed limit when I drive. I am not good enough.
Think I’m making any of this up?
Whenever I see other people experiencing joy or connection, whenever I see others succeed, whenever my oversensitive and nasty ego feels left out of adulation, I am confronted by this wave of self-generated criticism and bitterness, and it’s all I can do sometimes to internally scream at it and pray to God for strength.
Usually, after a good cry and some sleep, the wave recedes and I marvel at the cruelty I showed to myself, all the while knowing that I will show it again soon enough. The trigger could be as simple as forgetting or not having the time to do a chore one night. Often, it’s someone calling me “perfect” or something like it.
As much as I love being the center of attention and praise, I also loathe it. Every time a friend, acquaintance, or random person with whom I interact tells me how great, polite, fantastic, nice, awesome, wonderful, or perfect I am, that just adds fuel to the internal fire pushing me to be the best at all things at all times, whether I want to be or not. Let me make this clear: this is not the fault of these people for showing me their gratitude or enjoyment of me as a person. I am flattered and humbled by their compliments. It is my convoluted inner self that takes these comments and turns them inside out, replacing their wholesome intent with a subtle but sharp warning: “You’re perfect in this way at this moment, so you better keep it up your whole life, or else.”
Or else what? My mind can conjure up dozens of scenarios, but the most common involves me being laughed at, publicly scorned and shamed, abandoned by everyone, and doomed to a paradoxical fate of everlasting ignominy and anonymity at the same time. That is honestly what I would sometimes like to believe is the consequence for not being perfect.
Gloomy enough for you yet? Yeah, me too.
As much as all these interior problems torment me, I know that the (vast) majority of people in the world face much larger problems in mind, body, and/or spirit than me on a daily basis. This is not to trivialize my problems but rather to put them in perspective. I can recognize each day that I have a good life, and each day I also find at least one thing in which I can rejoice. And, always within, around, and beyond me, there is God. God calls me forth from my self-imposed darkness, willing my flourishing (and that of all creation) in the light of Love.
I have dealt with the problem of self-insecurity and, frankly, overthinking of self for much of my life (notice how much I use “I” in this thing?), and I will most likely struggle with it for the remainder of my years on the earth. That does not make me depressed but, as is my nature, determined to do my best, in this case with humor, humility, and dependence on God rather than anxiety, hubris, and dependence on self. I will do my best, not to win the approval of some cosmic board of judges but to show gratitude and love for the One who gives me the ability to be my best and to be at all.
No, I am not perfect. No, I am not good enough for the impossible standards that my mind sets for myself. But I am intrinsically good; at least, that’s what I learned in religious education for ten years. I am good to God, and, in each moment that I recognize and accept this, I am good enough for God. Being good enough for God enables me to try and be better, just for the heck (or heaven, I suppose) of it. And God, wonderfully enough, graciously effects that improvement, bringing me closer to my full, true self and communion with the Divine.
(Oh, and the quotation I chose to try and respond to for First Things? “Tout commence en mystique et finit en politique,” or “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” Frenchman, socialist, and Catholic Charles Péguy wrote it in 1910. I was going to respond that all things begin in mysticism because all things begin in Ultimate Mystery [God] and God moves from Mystery to the reality we perceive in order to draw us back to Mystery. I would have made a connection with the Incarnation and the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and highlighted what a true mystic is, someone who finds the Divine in the ordinary circumstances of life and strives to share their discovery with others, not hide it or enjoy it by themselves for all time. True mystics seek to bring God to the world’s attention through concrete action in and improvement of the world [politics], allowing the people of the world to look beyond it to its ground, its source, and its destination [Mystery]. Mysticism is not about dissolution of self in the Divine or arcane knowledge but rather about the loving communion of all creation with God, who is simultaneously One and Three, the source of individuality and the summit of free, loving relation. It’s not about solving the mystery but accepting and rejoicing in it. Perhaps I’ll expand on this some day, but that’s all I’ve got sloshing around in my brain at the moment.)
Well, I have just reached the 2,000-word mark, my goal for this ramble. Part of me wants a prize; all of me knows that’s why I’m writing this in the first place.
For those of you who have read through this whole thing: thank you. For those of you who encourage, support, put up with, appreciate, and–yes, I do know and cherish it–love me: thank you. For You who love me more than I can ever know, here or in the next life, and who hold that same love for all people and all creation: thank You, more than I can ever give thanks. ~