My life has been one long mad dash for perfection. Even something as simple as prayer became infinitely complicated when I started “trying to do it right”: praying to the right deity (“Dear Jesus”, “Heavenly Father”, “Oh Lord”), closing prayers correctly (“in Jesus’ name, Amen”), praying in the right order (praise and adoration, gratitude and thanksgiving, supplication—never ever put yourself first!) Are the hands folded with fingers interlaced or palm-to-palm? Kneel? Hold hands with prayer partners? What language to use: late Renaissance English (complete with “thee, thou, and thine” in the right syntax), everyday vernacular (“f**k it, God, what the he** is going on here?”), or maybe some glossolalia while channeling the Spirit directly? Eyes open or closed? Aloud or silently?
Are you feeling the pressure yet? Even as I write this paragraph, I’m feeling the burning in my belly and the tightness in my back and chest that accompanies my dread of being judged. Now expand that striving to include the “right” ways to dress, walk, speak, find humor, evangelize, or vote for president. There is also a “best” diet, educational pedagogy, career path for women, and even a “right” or “wrong” way to be looked at by the opposite sex.
"You're doing it wrong!"
Every day, to every action, probably to every thought (if I could track put a meta-tracker on my mind, and don’t think I haven’t tried), this statement is the unspoken corollary. No matter what I do, think, say, plan, someone will disapprove. I can never live up to the standards set out by all people. Realists among us will read this last statement and respond “of course, no one can possibly meet the demands of all the contradictory voices out there; it is ridiculous even to try.”
But I’m an overachieving first child of a preacher, a third generation Christian fundamentalist—I was bred for performance, raised to guard against “even the appearance of sin”, taught always to be concerned for my “witness”. God wanted to save all people but they would only be drawn to Him through wanting to emulate my life. I learned to judge myself against the cumulative standards of whatever group I was with so that my witness might always be pure. Yet, while I was “to be all things to all people” for the glory of God, I was also not supposed to be a hypocrite who only showed people what they wanted to see. My integrity was supposed to be such that God showed through my every action and thought, even every facial expression. And I took all of these conflicting messages from the myriad teachers, preachers, family members, very, very seriously—this was God’s plan for saving the world, after all, I didn’t want to be the one responsible for messing that up. (Oh, how small is the fundy god, if a scared, shy, skinny teenaged girl can derail his work!)
I learned the lessons of performance-based self-worth so well that when I ditched Christianity, I never realized that I was bringing all the fundy black-and-white worldviews, magical thinking, and “salvation by works” paradigms along with me. I took the surety of “one right way to happiness, health, and acceptance” right into the neo-hippie, crunchy-granola world. I birthed my babies at home, doctored them myself with herbs and remedies, homeschooled them from very early ages, ate organic or local food, and made as much of my own food as was possible without actually growing it myself. Every book I read on natural healing, nutrition, or holistic education gave me new information to be assimilated and applied, new truth to demonstrate to the world with my very life. Every educational cooperative, nutrition and community gardening group, and alternative medicine class had its experts to follow religiously, and its own set of holistic living rules by which to be judged. Sometimes I experienced actual judgment from people in each of these groups; more often, I assumed their judgment because I had so internalized the impossible standards worldview.
For forty-two years I pounded my square peg of a self into the round holes of performance-based value systems until my body and my mind quit working. I tried so hard to do and think all the Right Stuff and now I’ve spent the last three years unable to function to anyone’s expectations, much less everyone’s. When I attempt too much, my body gives out. And should I not pay sufficient attention, my mind goes—the black holes in there take over more and more of my cognitive function. I extended myself no grace for failure all those years and now I lack grace of gait and thought, a lurching facility of deed and word.
In the black-and-white, action-reaction, fundamentalist way of looking at things, I could think that the judgmental god of my childhood is wreaking vengeance on me for failing to meet his standards. Or for daring to call myself a Christian, while wresting my own interpretations of spiritual reality from Christian scriptures and traditions. Or for… whatever. Surely I have sinned greatly to deserve such punishment.
Instead, I choose (am choosing, it is a continual choice to deviate from my knee-jerk assumption that others are judging me) to consider this state not poetic justice from a cosmic judge but divine irony that is so much more characteristic of God’s grace. I am only a human Being since I can no longer be a human Doing much of anything.
Be still and know that I AM (Ps 46:10)