“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. This quote by Voltaire seems to be thrown around quite a bit in Catholic circles as of late.
The truth be known, Voltaire was actually rather anti-Catholic in his sentiment, but I’m guessing that if Voltaire and I sat down with a pint or two, there would be much we could agree upon when it comes to perfectionism.
Just the other day, I was reminded of the changes that have happened in my life in my own battle against perfectionism. I was in the middle of cleaning windows (one of my Advent resolutions) and came upon this scene:
The old me would likely have freaked out at this scene — just a little bit. But instead of freaking out, I simply closed the freezer door and admired the self-sufficiency of my 2 year old.
I actually smiled at the fact that his spoon wasn’t doing the job and so he chose to get a pick axe to get to that ice cream.
I sat and admired his ingenuity, let him finish his snack, and continued to clean my windows. I’m not patting myself on the back, I’m just marveling at how much I have changed over the years.
Yes, I still have my freak-out moments, but they are far fewer than before. And I know that’s not because of me — it’s all about Gods grace.
Which brings me back to the point of this story. My reaction to my 2 year old getting out a tub of ice cream and eating in my dining room would have been very different ten years ago.
The truth is, in the early years with littles, I had begun to let perfectionism get in the way of my joy. I had allowed it make those funny moments seem burdensome. I can remember many frustrated nights, thinking on the many “failures” of my day.
My perfectionism had gotten to the point where the joy in my life as a mother was waning and my faith was beginning to grow cold.
What I had to learn was that it was time to let go of perfectionism, for the sake of doing the good that I could do. But I would soon discover that that was easier said than done.
I want to be clear. Striving for holiness and a life of perfect love is not the “perfection” that I am suggesting we need to let go of. Far from it.
After all, Jesus said, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” — but this is nothing like the perfectionism of which I speak.
I am referring to a false sense of perfectionism that often traps us all. I am talking about the perfectionism that causes you to worry more about what people think of you than what God thinks of you.
I’m referring to a perfectionism that strives for unattainable standards and causes you to fall into sadness and sin — a perfectionism that keeps you from acting because it “will never be good enough”.
This perfectionism is based on a lie — a lie that says you aren’t good enough. You have been created good — very, very good.
You are more than enough, and you were created in love — ideally, the love of your parents, but absolutely the love of God was with you from the first moment of your existence.
God desires your happiness and He wants you to let go of a perfectionism that is holding you back from accepting His perfect love and giving His perfect love to others.
I can remember back on many days as a young mother when perfectionism was making me miserable. I might have started off doing a good thing like taking my kids to Mass, but my preoccupation with keeping my kids from disturbing everybody else’s prayer became a hindrance to truly entering into the Mass.
I told myself it was because I was being considerate of others, but I was actually being proud. I didn’t want people to think I was “one of those mothers who doesn’t know how to control her kids”.
I didn’t care as much about other people’s prayer time as I worried what they would think about me. I was preoccupied with human respect — to the point where it likely would have been better for me to stay at home.
I mean, Jesus was there — but I was pushing Him away. I wasn’t seeing how happy he was to see my little children there at Mass. I wasn’t seeing how little he cared about their little babbles here and there. I was too darn busy trying to look perfect. Has anybody else had that experience?
Some of my greatest struggles at the time were because I had convinced myself that motherhood had to be a certain way. I had an idea of what motherhood and being Catholic was supposed to look like — and I refused to let go of those images in my mind.
Even my prayer life was suffering because of it. The prayer that I was envisioning in those early days was almost impossible to execute with the life I was living with little children — I had grown accustomed to my prayer life and routine as a single person, and it just wasn’t working with my current life.
I had created a vision in my head of what a wife and mother and kids — and even God — should look like and behave. My biggest problem was that I wasn’t allowing life to be what it is — messy and unpredictable.
I wasn’t allowing God to be what He is — a Savior who wants to free me from my self-made prison of being “perfect”, not a perfection that He was asking from me, but one with unattainable standards I had made up myself.
I was stubbornly digging in to what I thought life should be like, not accepting the reality that real life does not fit nicely into a box — and real people with free will do not mindlessly obey our every whim and desire.
For me, accepting life as it came and, more importantly, accepting this crazy life as God’s will for me began to change my attitude. My life hadn’t changed, but my attitude towards it began to change.
I had begun to pray again, on a regular basis. A priest helped me to see that God might be doing something new with my prayer life and the rest of my life — and I needed to let go of trying to control it so much.
My prayer time wasn’t “perfect”, but it was good that I did it anyway. Sometimes there were (and still are) diaper changes and fights that needed settled and interruptions from the kids during that prayer time, but I began to realize that what was important is that I tried my best to show up, ready to have a conversation with my best friend. That’s it.
Slowly this letting go of perfectionism in prayer also led to letting go of an unhealthy perfectionism in the rest of my life. I began to put more focus on forming my kids, rather than focusing on controlling their behavior at all times. Strangely this little shift changed my parenting for the better.
I also began letting go of the perfectionism of having a perfectly clean home at all times. The truth is, my house is often a mess at some point in my day, but great thing are happening to cause those messes.
Music is being played. Things are being discovered and taught and absorbed. Play is happening. Babies are being nursed and held as they sleep, stories are being told. Memories are being made.
More important things are happening than just trying to keep a house in perfect order. We’re trying to form immortal souls here — and now that takes precedence in our house.
Besides, my kids are being taught to clean up after themselves and their family members and many of them have become quite good at their jobs around the house. Progress is happening, ever so slowly.
By the end of most days, we manage to have the first floor back in pretty decent order. Show up in the middle of the day, and you’d think you entered a house of insane people. Creative play is messy, people! I’ve had to make peace with that reality.
Strangely, letting go of perfection has allowed me to see the beauty of this life, in ways I never imagined. Just the other day, I came upon this disaster in my living room:
The old me would have been hyperventilating and yelling for everybody to come in and put everything back where it belonged.
The new me appreciated the four hours of creative play that happened there. I even found myself burrowing into a corner and reading a book my 5 year old got from St. Nicholas. 😉 Who is this lady and what have you done with the crazy, control-freak lunatic of 10 years ago?
I wish I could say that I no longer struggle with perfectionism. I wish I could say I had the solution, but it seems to me that it’s a lifelong process of letting go of what others think about us and developing a friendship with God that allows us to know Him and ourselves better.
The only wisdom I have come up with in the many years of being an adult, is that the more time we spend with Jesus, the more we ask Him to reveal to us how He sees us, the more we can let go of a perfectionism that is not of God.
Which means we have to pray — every, single day. Only then can we let go of the unrealistic ideals that the world is proposing is going to make us happy. Only then can we discover the woman that God had in mind from the beginning of time, the beautiful masterpiece — unrepeatable, beautiful, and whole — that He created you to be.
Slowly, over time, making time for prayer has softened my heart. All those prayer times I thought were fruitless, I am now beginning to realize that they haven’t been in vain.
Not only has it helped me to be more merciful with the people around me, but it’s helped me to be more merciful with myself, as well. It’s been pivotal in letting go of my harsh insistence on a false perfectionism and instead trying my best to pursue a perfection of love.
Who is God? God is love. You want to be perfect, pursue Love. Choose the most loving way, seek God’s guidance and act. This is the perfection we are called to. Let go of the rest.
Let us not grow weary in asking God to fill these Hardened hearts of ours until they become like His. Let us make His Heart our standard, His grace our fuel, and His mercy our hope. Now that is a perfection worth pursuing!
Happy Advent to you.