Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Confessions of a Perfectionist

I remember being 14 or 15 and making plans for my life. I was working at the history museum with my mom, it was summer. I was in the old meetinghouse, kept cool and dim by the long shades over the windows, all alone with my thoughts and my dreams. Pensive by nature I delved deep into my own heart, trying to make sense of what I felt and what I wanted. And I made a bunch of plans for my life, for the man I would marry, for the family I would have. It seemed like a necessary thing to do. These were plans I resolved deep within myself, plans that would prevent pain and harvest happiness. And, truthfully, there is part of me still clinging desperately to those plans.

With some distance between myself and the old me I can see what I was really trying to do. I was grasping for control, I was groping for some order. And the only thing I felt that I could control was my own future, my own family of someday. This was a reaction to my parents' divorce, that I am sure. It's strange, there is a distance of years and forgiveness between the divorce and now. I've let go of so much, I've stopped letting this singular event be the lens though which I experience every other event of my life. And it seems that as the big wounds heal, I find smaller scars I never noticed before. Thankfully, when I find these scrapes and scars it doesn't devastate at me, as in years before. I puzzle over it, I ponder it, I hold it at a distance and figure it out. It doesn't define me, I won't let it. Instead, I define it. And this is what I've been thinking about.

This desire for control, for plans, for creating expectations that aren't fair or altogether reasonable to expect. It's that grasping for sense, for something to hold onto, for something over which I alone can be sovereign. But it's a fallacy. There is nothing over which I alone can be sovereign. There will always be other people contributing to my world and to my experience. For that matter there will always be weather, traffic, and bad Internet connections interfering with my plans. I truly cannot control my world.

And I cannot manufacture the family I always wanted, the one I planned. At twenty years old I sacrificed my dreams for the husband I had imagined. Broken-hearted and devastated for the second time I decided that whatever I had planned for at 14 was an impossibility. I gave it up. And within six months I met my husband. Not the man I had planned, but the man I needed. Not a Cary Grant, but a Jimmy Stewart. Practical, down-to-earth, compassionate and sweet. Never mind that books bore him to death and his favorite part of musicals is always the part where someone fights. He's the man I couldn't have planned for, the one I couldn't have imagined. But I had to release my expectations to find him, and release them again to let him have a fighting chance.

I tend to choke the life, the chance, the joy out of everything in my life with my lists and plans and expectations. Planning my wedding was more of a nightmare than a dream. I ended up in tears when I watched most of our guests leave before our first dance. This wasn't what I planned! People weren't following my script and I didn't know how to cope. Our honeymoon suffered the fate of my over-planning. I had over thought things and it didn't work out how I had imagined. My thinking about things too much had led to making a stupid choice to save some money, and when it didn't work out, I was again in tears.

Every time my husband and I plan to go somewhere I get sick to my stomach. My mom says I get too excited and my system can't handle it. And it especially can't handle the devastation I feel when things don't go well. Our trip to Cleveland to see Les Mis prompted this discussion and this post. We think I got food poisoning from the restaurant in the hotel...but then again...maybe I was just sick with expectations that couldn't be met.

Now, and this is important,  I can't and I won't renounce the whole thing. There is something to be said for making plans and being prepared. Dreams are a good thing, perhaps even a gift from God. They inspire us, keep us going, and give us a method by which to achieve.But the fanatic and frenetic energy with which I do the whole thing is what causes the damage. I create expectations that cannot be met, and I am only left with varying degrees of disappointment. I rejoice in what worked out, but I always notice what wasn't quite right. This makes everything bittersweet, every glass can only ever be half full. Or perhaps full but smudged with fingerprints. Never perfect.

I think spiritually we all long for perfection because we had it once. There are echoes of Eden crying out that this imperfection isn't what we were created for. We were designed for perfection but must live in brokenness. No one feels that crippling reality more than the perfectionist. But we have been given an out, a way to freedom...accepting that perfection simply will not happen this side of heaven, but life can still be beautiful.

Some of the best memories I have are from the messiness of life when things didn't go as planned. When we had to improvise to make the best of things. When life takes you off script you can melt down or you can improvise. I am learning to improvise.

I still dream of my someday family. I still have plans and ideas for those little ones I've yet to conceive but pray for everyday. But the deepest prayer of my heart is that I will learn how to stop this great expecting. What I want most of all for that someday family is that they will not have a mama mired down in plans and expectations. I don't want this scar of mine to become hereditary or contagious. I don't want my husband to tiptoe around his frenetic wife and feel that his plans will never be as grandiose as mine, and therefore, not good enough for me. I want to be free to plan but not control, to dream but not build my world in those dreams.

That girl in the meetinghouse at the museum12 or 13 years ago...she meant well. She was hurting, probably scared, probably angry...not just at the divorce...but at being a teenager, at being young. Those years were full of disappointment and frustration (as well as beauty, laughter, friendship, and fun, I must add). Teen years always, always, always are, if we're all honest. And I look at her with compassion, but I can't honor her plans anymore. She simply didn't know what she was talking about, she didn't really know what she wanted. She didn't want control, she wanted security, she didn't want compulsive plans, she wanted safety.

And here she is today. A woman safe and secure in spite of the plans which didn't come to fruition or the ones which changed shape several times. A woman ready to let go of one more hurt in order to be stronger. A woman, wobbly like a toddler, learning how to step into uncertainty and embrace the unexpected, trusting the strong hands of the Father who alone controls.

This post doesn't signify the end of the lesson, it is not the reflections of triumph, but the promise of a future change. More like a caterpillar entering the cocoon then the butterfly leaving it, more like that wobbly toddler just starting to step than the adult resting from the run. My inspiration, I feel compelled to explain, is my five month old niece, not even able to crawl just yet...but trying, flexing those muscles, noticing new strength every day. If she can learn, so can I. She's got her whole life ahead of her, and so do I. A life of beautiful dreams and just-right expectations. I want her to learn from me. There are two ways we learn things from older generations. Looking at them and saying, never will I be like that. Or looking at them and saying, I hope to be like that.

Here's to becoming the latter.

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