Lent and Perfectionism

March 20, 2011

I was at a baby shower yesterday for a friend who just found out – at 5 months pregnant – that she is having twin girls. I was talking to a woman from our church whom I admire so much and who happened to mention Lent. I said, “Oh my gosh. I keep forgetting it’s Lent.” She told me she thought it was easy to forget as a new mother because new motherhood feels like Lent anyway. Lent and Easter, she said. I do know what she means and am hopelessly proud of myself for being so self-sacrificing (until I remember that a lot of it comes with the territory and it was something I chose) but it got me thinking again about the meaning of Lent.

Thankfully – and I do say this with all seriousness – I’ve had the luxury of coming to understand Lent as an adult with her own desire for a relationship with God. It’s hard enough to think about it the right way under those circumstances. I can’t imagine myself – no I CAN imagine myself – as a preteen staring down those 40 days with a will to do it perfectly. Oh the guilt. I don’t know though, so far the liturgical year has defied my determination to make it about me. I digress.

I will begin more at the beginning. Yes. This week has felt like Lent, for sure. It started with stomach flu for me and Henry, continued with a cold for me and a lot of housework and the like to catch up on, threw in a stroke for my grandma Swank and thankfully has ended with a much-needed reminder of what Lent means at church this morning.

On Thursday I went to what we’ve come to refer to as “girls’ night:” a gathering of some of my best friends from college who have stayed, or come back, to make lives in the Chicago suburbs. Julie, Megan, Becky and I gathered at Julie’s new house in Naperville. We were missing Clare, who lives in Wisconsin now and Heather, who was sick. As you can imagine, I was looking forward to the good food, a stiff drink and some girl talk around the table and, as per usual, it did not disappoint in those regards. In any other regard where it might ever disappoint, the fault is entirely mine. I only venture to write about this because these girls have now been with me through a LOT of years and a lot of phases and they know me. They are also unfailingly supportive, so when I talk about coming away from girls’ night feeling really crappy, I know they’ll understand. This gathering of women is unusual. There is absolutely no cattyness. These women don’t know the meaning of the word. It’s like a big cheerleading rally for the victories in our lives and it’s a very safe place to have a meltdown.

Anyway, I didn’t have a meltdown. I didn’t particularly have any victories to share either. And like many of the areas of my life right now, that’s the hard part. Let me just tell you: Julie runs capital campaigns for churches, some of them HUGE churches. She’s going to run ours, by the way. Everything Julie touches turns to gold. She has untold levels of energy and enthusiasm and makes everyone she meets fall in love with her. There is NOTHING Julie can’t sell and I do mean that in the best possible non oily way. Megan is a dentist who routinely works 11 hour days and has brought in, through personal contacts, probably twice the amount of patients her practice had before she went to work there. I don’t need to tell you how much schooling and hard work went in to becoming a dentist because you know. Becky is the social work director for a whole school for kids with Autism and I can’t tell you how many difficult, unpopular jobs she has done and made look like the best work in the whole world since I’ve known her. She’s another indefatigably positive and down-to-earth person. Clare and Heather are the two hardest-working, smartest teachers I’ve ever known even though they are both not currently teaching due to each having two children, at which they both excel even more than they did at being teachers. They both did grad school WHILE teaching full-time. Clare is an exceptional writer and somehow Heather still reads and has, while caring for her two children, started a business making children’s clothing.

I know I fit in this group somehow because we all just keep having a great time together. But sometimes…it’s hard to figure out where. I’m NOT indefatigably positive. I haven’t had personal success. In point of fact, it’s embarrassing to give updates on my life in this group because I’ve never even held an exciting full-time job, much less seen personal growth or success in that area. I’ve barely even held ANY full-time jobs. Since college, my updates threaten to become a litany of self-pity and so I try to say as little as I can. And lately…especially lately…I feel like either God or we have us in a perpetual Lent. I have SO much college debt and we have a good chunk of credit-card debt – some portion from failed business ideas of mine. Henry is ill and has been for 6 years and it impacts our lives on a daily basis. We’re stretched so perpetually thin financially that I am thankful (so thankful!) to be going back to help a friend from church in a sort of babysitting capacity soon, which has been my only REAL occupation since I graduated. That’s it. I’ve been a babysitter.

Hang on here, I’m going somewhere.

So, I come home and I complain to Henry and I struggle to get the housework done and I feel guilty about not eating well this week and I think, “oh what the hell. It’s already too late anyway. I’m not going to do much with my life at THIS point. It’s impossible even to do some simple crafts having to care for Gilead all day and he’s become my excuse for everything. And that’s it. This is what my life is and I can’t even do the wife/mother thing well enough. It’s been a couple of weeks and we’re already back to the convenience food and not cooking. I can’t even do the MOST BASIC THINGS to the best of my ability.” At these times, I truly don’t know what I, personally, have going for me.

That’s when I get it. THIS is what Lent is supposed to be about. Not giving up sweets so that I can feel good that I’ve gained some personal victory over my cravings. Not giving up t.v. so that I can get on my soapbox about how it’s ruining family life because I feel so self-righteous over having given it up. It’s not SUPPOSED to be about self-denial for its own sake. It’s supposed to be about penitence. About reorienting myself to the way things truly are: that I am IN NEED OF JESUS. Just that, not that I need a little boost from Jesus to get me started and then once I get on the right track I can “take it from here.” Not that I need to spend more time reading my Bible every day (which would be any time at all right now, frankly) or whatever other spiritual discipline I can tick off my list to feel better. NOT that if I can just get our diet together then Henry would get well and would find a job and make a bunch more money so we wouldn’t feel so desperate all the time. NO!!!! This, how I feel right now, THIS is the point: me on the floor, spent, understanding that there IS no “getting it right;” that all I have is Jesus. Not a method or a diet or a f*^%ing boost. Just Jesus. A person. And I need Him.

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2 Responses to “Lent and Perfectionism”

  1. Gwen Says:

    yes…and it is SO simple & so complicated at the same time because of our culture & expectations we have been surrounded by all our lives! Still trying to live it well & by noone else’s standards than HIS. At least a decade older than you are too, J! Keep leaning on HIM…

  2. Henry Shuffle Says:

    This period of our lives does feel like Lent, whether we like it or not 🙂 The impulse to try to “fix” this with more bible reading, etc., is at least as strong as the impulse to eat sweets (that favorite Lenten foe). But that impulse for me tends to be about “getting it together,” which hasn’t worked so far, rather than drawing near to Christ.


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