A gentle whisper in my ear broke through my early morning dream. I sat up quickly when the sunlight filtering through our red paisley curtains cast a crimson glow across my son’s face. The unwelcome light accused me and immediately my self-berating thoughts began:
"I did it again. I promised this day would be different. I would get up while it was still dark and spend time with God. I know I need it and it is a new year. I can’t do anything right."
“Play with me, mommy?” My six-year old's big brown eyes danced with hope as I was caught up in my inner dialogue of despair. My first instinct was to decline his request and send him on his way. My husband and daughter’s snores told me I could hand my son an electronic device and still have time to hit my yoga mat before they woke.
In the split second between his request and my response, there was a war raging inside my head. I thought back to the previous day when I sat at the dining room table with papers scattered all around. My half filled out bullet journal from last year sat there mocking me. You failure, the uncompleted to-do lists said. The daily gratitude page was half filled out, telling me I was ungrateful. You're lazy, said the books I intended to read but hadn’t. The pieces I needed to have already written because deadlines were looming, calling me: Procrastinator. And worse of all, the scriptures I hadn’t memorized, the devotional I was reading that I was weeks behind on said: Bad Christian.
I ripped out the accusing pages one by one. I stared at the crumpled mess on the floor and wanted to shout at them, "You don’t define me. I am going to change. This time will be different." After over three decades of living with this inner dialogue, I know my tendencies by now. I’m all or nothing. If I can’t follow through with every stroke of my schedule, the whole plan is abandoned. If I say I am going to get up and workout, read my Bible, and pray every morning and instead oversleep (again), then I will go the whole day without doing any of those things. I’ve already failed, so what’s the point in trying?
All those stories so ingrained in my early upbringing in the faith run through my mind. Meant to encourage us towards spiritual disciplines, these stories set a bar of perfectionism I have been trying to attain every since. There was the one about a certain man of faith who never once missed a day reading his Bible. When he got sick towards the end of his life, his wife sat by his hospital bed and read it to him each day. There is the man praised because he didn’t miss a single Sunday of church even when his child was sick in the hospital or the woman who showed up to rock babies every weekend for decades. I was always told faithfulness to a task proves faithfulness to God…thus I am unfaithful.
This bent towards perfectionism has been killing me for years, snuffing out a fire of intimacy with God that used to burn brightly. And I’m so tired of it...
My mind struggles to place this feeling—this breathlessness, the sensation of reaching for something secure. I lie in bed trying to quiet my thoughts, forcing my chest to rise and fall in regular, timed breaths. I think over all there is to do and all I have left undone today. I fret over all the plans that feel over my head. I imagine water rising around me. A memory plays at the edges of my consciousness and I suddenly know when I felt this way, just a few weeks before.
My brave little girl had made the move from tentative wave jumper to full-blown ocean lover this summer. We vacation yearly at the same beloved beach and we loved being back, days spent covered in salt and sand.
She would beg me to take her, boogie-board in tow, far out to where the waves were breaking. Their white peaks would tease us, our hearts racing as they neared. Most often they would dissipate before getting to us. But once in a while, the foamy rushing water would tower over our heads and carry us in, sometimes under.
The water was up to her shoulders but not too high for me. I wanted to see the great waves the way she saw them, so when she was occupied with friends I broke away to venture farther out into the chilly, murky Atlantic. I swam until my feet dangled and my head bobbed up and down with each move of the water. I couldn’t see another person near. There was only water and sky in every direction. Completely at the mercy of the sea, completely caught up in it.
For a moment I marveled at the beauty of it. There is nothing I love more than the tranquil sound of waves lapping against the shore, the vastness of it all. I felt my smallness so keenly in that moment, knew my place in the world. A tiny spec in the seemingly endless ocean—I marveled at the Creator of all this.
How could He care for this one tiny life in the world where so much mattered more? This is what I wanted, to know my place and feel the weight of His care for me despite my smallness.
But then, feeling the utter lack of control I had as the undertow began to tug at me, I felt the panic rising up in my chest. As much as I love the ocean, I fear it equally. I’ve never been a strong swimmer. Not another soul in sight and the shore growing farther away, I fought my breath coming in gasps. The same sea that evokes such peaceful imagery can become a beast without warning. That vastness could so easily swallow me whole.
I closed my eyes and swarm hard until my feet could find the soft sand squishing between my toes, the comforting feeling of control returning.
Lying in my bed, my little wave jumper’s head curled up under my chin, I remember the feeling of the sea all around me. I remember the panic, but also the awe. All my worries and attempts at control from the day melt away. I unclench my fists and try to let all my fears tumble from my hands. Continue Reading
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