Freed from Perfection

I was 17 and nearing the end of my junior year of high school. As it was every spring, my life was a bit crazy. Basketball season had just ended, but already I was involved in rehearsals for the upcoming spring musical. I had a full load of classes, and since anything less than an A would be devastating, my evenings were usually filled by homework. Plus, our spring music contest was coming up, and I was concerned about my piano solo.

I had been playing for about 11 years at that point, so experience wasn’t the problem, but I’d picked a difficult piece, a French suite by Bach. (Think lots of sixteenth notes played in both hands at the same time.) Even though I had been practicing every day and taking an extra weekly lesson to help me out, I was still worried about it.

What if I forget the whole thing? What if I miss too many notes? What if I can’t get a one rating?

The day before the contest, my dad, knowing how anxious I was, said, “You know…it’s okay if you get a two rating. We’ll still love you.”

One part of me heard him and registered the reassurance. The other part of me thought, But it’s not okay. Getting a two would be like…failing.

I’m a people-pleaser by nature. When I was younger, I followed the rules, not because I was afraid of getting into trouble, or even because I wanted to do the right thing, but because the idea of disappointing one of my parents or a teacher terrified me. I wanted people to like me, and being perfect – or at least as close to perfect as I could manage – seemed the best way to achieve that.

From about age 13 on, though, that striving for perfection had slowly taken a stranglehold on my life, and I could feel myself suffocating. I didn’t like trying to be perfect, but my other options (read: failing) didn’t seem so good either.

The day of the contest came, and I played my solo. My hands shook with nerves, and though I didn’t have the complete memory blank I had feared, I missed a fair share of notes. (My mom told me later that as she videoed my performance, her hands were trembling with sympathy nerves, so the video turned out to be a bit shaky.)

Throughout the afternoon, I kept returning to the wall of ratings to see if mine had been posted yet. It hadn’t…still hadn’t…still hadn’t. Finally, the verdict came.

I had received a two.

I remember the sinking of my stomach, the desire to avoid telling anyone else what my rating had been. I wanted to pretend it hadn’t happened, to ask for a redo, or to go back in time and not try at all. Any of those options would have been fine with me. Unfortunately, none of them were real options.

I’m not sure what I had envisioned happening when I failed. Did I think someone would make fun of me or berate me for not trying harder? None of that happened, however. Instead, everyone was sympathetic. My friends who had listened to me play kindly disagreed with the judges’ decision. My mom noted that many of the judges’ comments were a matter of personal opinion. My dad, while reading through their comments about the Baroque period, made the rather worn out joke of “If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it!”

At heart, I knew the judges were right. I hadn’t played the piece perfectly, and the two rating was fair. Still, having the support of those I cared about meant the world to me.

Things didn’t change overnight, but slowly I began to see that stranglehold of perfection for what it was: a chain. And it wasn’t a chain my friends, my family, or God required me to wear. Because they weren’t interested in my good grades, my top performances, or my good deeds. They were interested in relationship with me.

I began collecting quotes and insights that reminded me of this truth.

We labor under the false assumption that if we live perfectly, everybody will accept us. But there is One who did live perfectly and everybody rejected Him.

Life with God is about relationship, not filling in the blanks [i.e. following the rules].

He who has God plus many things [power, money, healthy marriage, successful ministry] has nothing more than he who has God alone.

And as I listened, gathering the insights of those far wiser than me, I began to hear God’s voice too.

It’s okay if you don’t know which college to choose. I’ll point you in the right direction when the time comes.

It’s okay if this article/devotion/story never gets published. If it needs to get published, I’ll make sure it does.

It’s okay if you don’t know how to fix your relationship with this friend. Wait on Me, and I’ll show you the way.

It’s okay if you don’t know what to say to encourage this child. I love him/her more than you ever could, and I’ll give you the words.

In my failures, I grew closer to Him than I ever had in my “perfection.” Because when I came to the place of being willing to admit I didn’t know, I was finally ready to listen to what He already knew and had known all along.

Looking back, I can see that I wasn’t so much afraid that He would stop loving me if I failed…I was just hoping He might love me more if I succeeded.

But that simply wasn’t true.

I love you when you fail, He said. I love you when you succeed.

I love you when you reject me. I love you when you accept me.

I love you when you ignore me and disobey. I love you when you listen and obey.

Nothing you do – EVER – can make me love you less.

Nothing you do – EVER – can make me love you more, because I already love you with all the love in my heart, which is more than you can possibly imagine.

And it was only in His love that I was finally free to let go of perfection and simply be. Which was what He wanted all along.

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