Waste My Youth Chasing Kites
I know will blow out of my hand
These days, the word “perfectionist” is negative. Perhaps it’s because I think of myself as a perfectionist that I really notice it everywhere— the unrelenting plea of well-meaning society to let go of perfectionism. While I understand the spirit of the exhortation, I think the wrong “side” of perfectionism is being targeted.
For one thing, perfectionism has its place and it is a valuable trait when it stays in its lane. If you’re hiring an accountant or paying someone to do your taxes, do you want “I’m a perfectionist” or “meh, good enough”? What about your dentist? What about the architect of the bridge you’re driving across?
But sure, those are not arenas in which people are taking aim at those with an eye for detail. It’s more to those who need their perfection a little closer to home. Moms trying to “do it all” is the context in which I most often hear the admonishing “let go of perfectionism”— because perfection is unattainable, they say.
And yet, as far as I’m concerned, a lot hinges on how you define “perfection” for any given situation or task. In plenty of cases, “perfection” is actually completely achievable, and is achieved, daily. For myself, the best example is the kitchen. Every evening, I wash all of that day’s dishes, put them away, and wipe the counters. To me, that’s the kitchen being “perfect.” (One plate or glass on the counter makes it “not perfect”— not the ample deep cleaning and polishing that still could be done.) The perfect kitchen is how I mentally close a day. I look at it before bed and it makes me happy. In the morning, a fresh start is waiting for me. I see it and it makes me happy again!
I want to put forward that it’s not achieving one’s idea of perfection that’s exhausting. It’s contending with the reason that we think perfection is necessary.
The “clean house” is such a visible example. I tidy up before guests come over. I tidy more than I would if they weren’t coming. I like it when my idea of perfection is achieved in terms of tidiness, and, given enough lead time, it always is. I am not tired out by this work; on the contrary, I thrive on it. So what’s the problem?
The problem lies in why I want the house to look perfect. Truth is, I believe my guests make character judgments of me based on the state of my house. The reason I know this is an unredeemed thought is because I don’t make character judgments of other people based on the state of their house. It’s a one-way river of condemnation, and unlearning that tenet is not something I can do on my own. The kicker is, if I am ever able to fully acknowledge in my heart that my value lies in my identity in Christ, I will be okay even if people do judge my messy house— or anything else!
At the end of every day, my perfect kitchen tells me a story: “Look at this beauty and order— things are under control. Things are under YOUR control.” A comforting thought, but not a healthy or true thought for someone trying to surrender all things to God. Even control.
The underlying motive behind perfectionism is a difficult thing to diagnose in yourself, and even more difficult to treat. Because in a lot of cases, it means changing the rationale without (completely) changing the behaviour. I still have to wash my dishes.
It is one more facet of my lifelong journey to understand that my work does not determine my value.