Sunday, June 2, 2013

When a perfectionist is far from perfect

Since I’ve been ordained, I’ve spent a lot of Sunday afternoons beating myself up over something I should or shouldn’t have done that morning. A big piece of this has been the result of my insecurity, because I am a terribly self-conscious person and I feel absolutely vulnerable when I’m standing behind the altar in front of God and everybody. Whenever I used to mess up, I just knew they were all thinking, “What an idiot!” The worst part was that I couldn’t run and hide; I had to go on. So I would push on to the benediction, and then rush home afterwards where I spent the rest of the day wallowing in self-loathing. But this wasn't all about my insecurity. It was also about the need I had to be perfect. I don't know where that came from, but I suspect it had something to do with a deep feeling of unworthiness, or maybe even just plain worthlessness.

On Friday night I presided at the Eucharist for our North Carolina Synod assembly. The last time I had done that was 34 years ago at my very first district convention after being ordained. I was the first woman pastor in the Eastern North Dakota District of the American Lutheran Church and I was trotted out like a prize pony. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I went through the motions, and don’t remember that it was a disaster, so it must have been okay. This time around, I did something that I never would have done in those early years. I chanted. I learned to do this over time, and I usually enjoy it. But I was chanting something I wasn’t all that familiar with and I thought I could move from one section to the next without a pitch. Well, I messed up. I lost my pitch and I had to stop and ask the organist to help me. I wasn’t happy with myself, but guess what? It also wasn’t the end of the world. It was significant for me to realize this. There was a time when I would have been mortified and beat myself up over such a blunder to the point of exhaustion. I’m thankful that I’ve grown through the years. Not only as a worship leader, but more importantly, as a person who is more at peace with my own very human limitations.

Life is never easy for a perfectionist who is far from perfect. You can waste untold energy beating yourself up, which is no way to live. Knowing that, I’ve worked hard to forgive myself for being human. I’ve even grown to love my imperfection. One of the things that helped me was learning about Native American bead-work. In the midst of intricate patterns and colors, there is the tradition of an artist intentionally putting one bead out of place. The idea is that no one is perfect but God. So the out-of-place bead is an act of humility to give honor to God. This concept was so liberating for me! Now, whenever I flub in a worship service, I say to myself, “Well, that was my bead out of place.” Sometimes there are several beads out of place. Oh well. They always remind me that I am not God, and that’s as it should be.

Back when I was in my 20s, my mom gave my sister and me lace tablecloths that had been crocheted by our great grandma. When I got mine, I noticed that it had some stains on it and, of course, I wanted it to be perfectly white. So, I soaked it in Clorox water. Do you know what Clorox does to antique cotton? It isn’t pretty. I ended up with a tablecloth with giant holes in it. Dumb! Dumb! Dumb! I was so mad at myself for ruining a family heirloom that I could have one day passed on to my own daughter. I cried and cried. How could I have been so stupid!? I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away, so I tucked the shreds away in a box. Several years later, I pulled it out to see what I had done and kick myself again for being so stupid. That’s when I realized that there was one large section still intact. So, I took that section to a framer and asked her to mat and frame it. She did, and I now have a lovely piece of antique lace hanging on my wall. One day as I was admiring it, I was surprised to see that it had a glaring mistake in it. The lace circles with petals like daisies had been sewn together by joining two petals from one circle to two petals of another. But on one of them, there were three petals that had been joined together, so that on the next circle of lace only one petal could be joined. My ancestor had messed up! She was not perfect, just like me. But instead of tearing everything out and fixing her mistake, she just compensated for it. The result was beautiful lace work with a message to a woman who came after her, someone she would never know. What a gift! It was just like a bead out of place, but it was so much more than that. It reminded me of how stupid and careless I had been with something so valuable, yes. But that seemed to be okay now. Because it revealed to me how I come from a long line of imperfect people. And that even imperfect people can create a thing of beauty. In fact, it may be the imperfection that makes it so beautiful.

And then, there was the fact that of all the pieces of the tablecloth I could have salvaged, this was the piece -- the one that came with a lesson of wisdom to me from my great-great grandmother. I look at it now and know that it is truly a sign of God working in my life. And in that respect it is nothing less than perfect.



Sylvia said...

I, too, am a condemning perfectionist of myself. The next morning after a party, I spend in agony wondering why on earth had I said/done/reacted however I had.
While I don't get up in front of a congregation week in and week out, each time I address my church, I replay and criticize my performance.
And don't even get me started on breaktime/lunchtime conversations.
Recently, though, I had an epiphany that occurred in the checkout line. Once again, I thought of what the worst thing that could happen -- leaving my wallet. And yet, as I got up to pay, I felt in my pocket, my purse, nothing. No wallet. $167 of ice cream, cereal and lunch meat. A weeks worth, already bagged. The cashier looked at me, lowered her voice and said "you don't have your wallet, do you?" No, I shamefacely replied. She called her manager over, he looked at me and asked where I lived. Just behind the store in the next subdivision. "Go on and take the groceries home and come back." Dumbstruck.
Now, each and every time I start that 'you should have done, you should have said', I remember the love and grace of that Publix manager who trusted me enough to come back.
As do your congregation who love and trust you to come back each week to share in the love of our Lord.
Grace and Peace to you.

Sally D said...

One thing I've noticed about perfectionists--for the most part, we don't recognize other perfectionists. It IS (at least for me) a case of feeling "less than", so maybe perfectionists can't believe that anyone could feel less than she.

For me, it can result in inertia--difficulty in carrying through because of knowing "it" won't be right. In the past, I was told to just make it "good enough." "They" don't get it--They're "good enough" and my "good enough" aren't the same things.

As I've aged, I see some of the outside work that I do as work God wants me to do. Because of this sense of doing "God's work", I push on and make myself complete tasks that make a positive difference in the world. "Thy will be done" and "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft a-gley!"