Chasing utopia...and losing yourself

I am a perfectionist.

I have been for a very long time. Perfectionism manifests itself in me in various ways: being a type-A, detail oriented person; having manic swings where I have to ORGANIZE EVERYTHING RIGHT NOW; feeling guilty if I have not accomplished what I believe to be my best work; feeling hurt and ashamed by critique, no matter how kind or valid.

This is not to say that I am in perfectionist mode all the time. I make messes, I can be a total flake, I often have the urge to ignore areas of life and work that I'm not good at.

In general, my perfectionism means that my outlook on life is based on seeking ways to make things as good as possible. Some days, this comes across as optimism and energy. Other days, this comes across as frustration and feelings of inadequacy.

Put another way, I am a person who is always seeking utopia in some fashion, big or small. If I can just arrange my office in the perfect, most beautiful, most organized way, then I have created a peaceful utopia amidst the bustle of everyday church life. If I can just bring a few really good ideas to a committee and see them through to success, then I have created an affirming utopia where we are all empowered, and where I am in good graces. If I can wake up early on a sunny Saturday morning and walk first to the farmer's market and then to my favorite, idyllic coffee shop, then I have created a slice of small-town utopia that might trump whatever I loved or miss about suburban life.

I mean, I have this tendency to believe that if I put things together just-so, then I can create and appreciate a perfect little world around me, and be very, very happy.

The problem is that this doesn't actually work in real life.

It's not just that my office gets messy and disorganized sometimes, or that even my best efforts sometimes receive due critique. It's not just that sometimes I oversleep my alarm on Saturdays. And it's not even that the world is an unpredictable place, and I can't always control everything (as much as I'd like to).

The problem with endlessly seeking utopia is that you lose yourself in the process. When all of my time is spent organizing perfect parameters for my life, I don't actually get around to living that life.

Take yesterday, for example. It'd been a sleepy, frustrating sort of day. I spent the afternoon looking forward to going home, crashing on the couch, and knitting to the sound of silly television shows.

I got home, and pulled out my basket of knitting, but first decided that I was hungry and needed a good snack (a honeycrisp apple and peanut butter...yum). Once I had the perfect snack, I went back to the couch, and then had to find the perfect channel on TV before I could settle in to start knitting (that took two full cycles through all the channels, just to make sure I wasn't missing anything that happened to be at commercial during the first pass). And just in case somebody at church really needed me (and I wouldn't want to let anybody down), I probably needed to grab my phone and check my email one last time. Basically, it took me forever to get around to knitting, and I only finished a couple rows before it was time to start thinking about dinner.

Because everything needed to be just-so. Because I had to be perfectly set-up for my picturesque late afternoon of knitting. And in the process of setting myself up, I wasted all of the time I could have simply been knitting.

That's the thing about utopia. Work too hard to create your perfect world, and you never actually get around to enjoying it. Because you've put too much pressure on yourself to be perfect instead of being happy.

It's a lesson about life, surely, and about ministry. And about starting families and taking care of houses and doing all of that grown-up sort of stuff. We think that perfect will pave the way to happy. But perfect really just delays happy until sometime in the unknown future.

Which is not exactly how I want to live. Nor is it how my faith encourages me to live.

In Matthew 6 Jesus says, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?...But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today."

And in Revelation 21 I read, "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more...And the one who was seated on the throne said, 'See, I am making all things new.'"

We're not talking self-made utopia here. We're talking about trusting God in the stuff of today, and trusting God in the work of new, perfect creation. So how might I - how might each of us! - live in this space where we trust God more than we trust ourselves, where we stop trying to make things perfect, and instead focus on appreciating and loving this day and this blessed moment? Might we find that we are happier? More fulfilled? Less anxious?

I suspect so.

I must myself remember: I am not called to perfection. I am called to be faithful and gracious, generous and kind. And there is a big difference between those things.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:09 PM

    Great post! I too am a perfectionist. I recently discovered this while reading The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr and studying it with a small group. It was incredibly helpful to me and the best personality type tool that I've ever used. In each type your core need is both your gift and your root sin which I found hard and helpful. Have you read it?