“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the heck is water?’”
I have adapted this parable by David Foster Wallace and I am going to co-opt it to tell you the story of when I first realized I was swimming in the waters of perfectionism. The wise older fish in my life was a pastor with whom I was close in college. I spent some time in one of our regular meetings, as I often did, listing off the insane and unrealistic list of things I had to do that week. He patiently waited for me to finish my catalog of tasks, then said, “Whew, the lives of you perfectionists make me tired!” I was quick to correct him, “No, no, no, I’m no perfectionist. You should have seen me in high school! I have loosened up big time since then!” He didn’t argue with me because he trusted that the Holy Spirit was going to reveal to me what he saw the first time we met. Sure enough, I was unable to forget that pastor’s comment, and it later hit me like a ton of bricks: the water of perfectionism is punishing, and I was drowning.
Perfectionism was to me like water is to a fish because I always assumed striving toward perfection was a good thing. I saw no problem with the culture from which I came and continued to surround myself at an excellent liberal arts college. Perfectionism motivated hard work, early mornings, late nights, and the admiration of others. I did not see that underneath the thin veneer of perfectionism lived an unhealthy anxiety that created and resulted from my own unattainable standards for just about every part of my life.
If it isn’t obvious already, perfectionism is problematic. For me, perfectionism led to a very unhealthy physical, mental, and emotional life. I refused to honor my body’s need for rest, so my performance suffered – the worst nightmare of a perfectionist! The resulting anxiety over unmet standards often came out sideways in anger. I was angry at myself for exhaustion and at friends and roommates for interrupting my meticulous scheduling. Perfectionism made me intensely unhappy even though it had promised to deliver what I thought I wanted: the approval of others and self-sufficiency.
My wise older fish had this phrase he said so often that it used to get on my nerves. That is until I understood what it meant for me. He would always say, “Jillian, it’s okay. And it’s okay to be just okay.” My pastor understood and rested in the implications of Christ’s perfection. He preached it every time he stood in the pulpit and across the table from me. He captured the ethos of Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10:
“But [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
The power of Christ breaks the enslaving effects of perfectionism. It allows us to work realistic hours each day and then set it down for rest. It allows us to be present with friends and family instead of angry at their “interruptions”. It allows us to be okay when we meet the limits of our time, energy, or ability. It provides us with the perseverance to work every day over a lifetime toward fulfilling God’s calling. Relinquishing my perfectionist standards to embrace Christ’s power and perfection is where sweet freedom is found. The Living Water is a much better place to swim.