I wrestle again with an old monster. I could euphemistically call it ambition, or even perfectionism, but more honestly I must name it Fear of Failure. Jay came to console me ringside during a long and troubled night when sometimes I was winning and sometimes the monster, and said something to the effect of “You’re failing at things no one else is even trying.” Hmm. Anyone else to whom I confess these fears often says the same thing my mother said when I came home from school crying because I got a 90% instead of 100% on a test: “Cut yourself some slack!”
I know exactly what brought the monster on. I probably invited it in and held the door for it. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed trying to now take care of two homes when I was struggling before to take care of one. We are spending about half of our time and energy on the boat. We live there Friday through Sunday, and spend part of Monday unpacking and catching up. So I have three full days to plan and shop for the week’s meals, make phone calls or run errands, school the children, clean the house, do 6-8 loads of laundry, bake the bread, catch up on any missed sleep from tiring weekends…need I go on? It’s exhausting just to make the list.
So some things have to slide. Even though I know this, I allowed the scenery to accuse me. A pile of half-finished homeschool projects on the dining room table whispered, “Failure!” The message light on the phone blinks, “Failure!” The To-Do List called out “Failure!” from the magnet on the refrigerator. Someone groaned when I told them what was for dinner and I heard, “Failure!” (Failure to cook pleasing meals and to raise children who don’t complain!) Am I a failure at all the things I love and desire to be: a wife, a mother, a sister, a friend, a writer, a teacher?
A metaphor presented itself at midnight, as I tried to wind down for bed. I went to take a shower, realized the bathroom was disgusting and grabbed my spray-bottle and scrubbing pad. But it doesn’t matter how hard I work on that shower, it never looks clean when I’m done—it needs a tile guy, not a housewife. So even the mildew from the corners murmurs, “Failure!” Once I realized that I was listening to inanimate objects accuse me, it should have been cause for laughter and set me free. Or at least sent me off to bed to sleep it off. But that burning question remained, “When is it good enough?” Or maybe, really, “When will I be good enough?”
This fear of failure does not keep me from trying new things; it just keeps me from enjoying them. I am the oldest in my family, and some psychologists think that has something to do with it. For my also-first-born husband, it keeps him from trying things at which he doesn’t think he’ll be successful. In our first-born child, it manifests itself as intense frustration. Whatever our birth-order, most of us at one time or another set these unreasonable expectations, and respond to them as our personalities dictate.
The problem with these expectations is, of course, that it sets us up for disappointment. We are always looking at something and feeling like it’s just not good enough. And maybe it’s not. Where did this ambition come from? It’s like that homesickness of which I have written before. If we all feel like things should be perfect, that something is amiss, isn’t it possible that perfection exists and we were made to live in that state? I’m certainly not there now!
It turns out that I’m just like the mildewed shower: I don’t need a good scrubbing, I need a savior. The whole point of Christianity, as I understand it, isn’t just that Jesus came to take the punishment humanity deserved, but that He lived the perfect life we all want to live, the one required by a perfectly good God. He lived it for us. So I can say, “I am not good enough,” and because I identify myself with His Son, God can say, “That’s okay. I accept you anyway.” And the hope for someday is that He’s going to set it all right again. All the first-borns will breathe a sigh of relief.
In the meantime, we must wrestle. I have to remind myself that, for now, it is good enough. I can’t scrub the shower all night. At some point, I have to go to bed and put a clean bathroom into perspective after a good night’s sleep. For our transition to living on the boat, this is the year when things slide, whether I like it or not. A good friend reminded me that we are living our dream, which is already more than most people achieve. I knew it would cost something, and the frustration I am feeling just happens to be one of those costs.