You Win Some.
Dear Perfect Version of Me,
I know you don’t really exist. I sometimes sense you reading over my shoulder, tsk-tsking me for not getting the wording exactly right on that delicate email. I feel you taking up space at the board room table when I’ve made a suggestion no one else likes. You tap my shoulder to wake me up at night to ponder (translation: obsess over) that unkind thing I’d said or done the day before. At first I wonder why you hadn’t let me deal with that mess during waking hours, and then I remember you needed to catch me when I’d let my guard down, entering the side door of my dreams.
How do I know you aren’t real? Because I believe in God. I can’t believe in both an almighty God and perfection on this side of God’s realm at the same time. God’s imagination for us is perfect, but all we can do is perceive it through a mirror, dimly, and then attempt to reproduce it where we can.
Seeking to act in a way that conforms with God’s will, and listening to you drone on and on, Perfect Version of Me, are different undertakings altogether. Striving to be good, to be better, to be whole? Those are the challenges that get me out of bed in the morning. Wanting to be perfect, and feeling bad when I inevitably fall short? That’s what makes me pull the covers back up over my head.
I’ve learned some strategies for quieting you down over the years.
The Big-Data Antidote to Perfectionism: I try to engage the world actively and rack up lots of life experiences. By virtue of the fact that I interact with hundreds of people in any given week, I can accept that not all those interactions will go well, because so many do. I try some new tasks and succeed; I try others and fail. But if I succeed nine times out of ten, that’s still an A-. Not an A+, but I cross my fingers there’ll be a curve.
Controlling What I Can: All leaders are held responsible for things they can’t control, and my ministry is no exception. I could moan about the tyranny of People, or I can control what I can. When a student is unhappy that a space where I’m in leadership doesn’t feel safe, I can simultaneously do all I can to make a space as hospitable as possible and accept that what another person feels might include many dimensions that are beyond my power. Adding a third step of beating up on myself for not creating safe space, and a fourth step of beating up on myself for having a thin skin in the face of not getting something right? Yeah, I don’t have time for those.
Coming Prepared: As part of a classroom exercise this past week, I took a self-assessment on intercultural awareness. I gave myself high scores on understanding — celebrating — that people are different from one another. I gave myself lower scores, however, on my capacity to accept that diverse settings inevitably present challenges where people get their feelings hurt. Entering every dialogue, encounter, and relationship with prior knowledge that, if this engagement is going to be meaningful, it probably won’t be perfect because it involves imperfect beings in an imperfect world? That’s what I call a liberating theology.
Perfect Version of Me, I need to manage your expectations not just for my sake, but for the sake of those around me. If I learn not to expect perfection from myself, I’ll be readier to accept that others aren’t perfect either. If I believe you when you try to tell me you’re attainable, it’s not only me that I’ll hold to impossible standards. In other words, you are standing in the way of grace, so I’m going to need you to step aside.
I realize that the aphorism is, “You win some; you lose some.” I’ve always been fine with the first part. But the second part is what it means to be human, and whereas I’m human, you’re not. I’m writing to you because having a good relationship with you might be just what I need to prevent you, Perfect, from being the enemy of that which is, for me, what’s Good.
With imperfect love,