Updated: Apr 23, 2020
I’m one of those people often called a perfectionist. I suppose I am, although I don’t think of myself that way, but I have to admit I’ve always imposed very high standards on myself and my work. If I had to do something, I wanted it to be done well, or at least to look like it had been done well. Everything from my grades to my appearance and the appearance of my home was a reflection of me, and it was always very important what other people thought of me.
Because of this, I’ve always been very “successful”, making straight A’s, getting scholarships and awards, being asked for advice, and being praised and admired by others. My greatest satisfaction in life was being able to look back at my accomplishments, to remember words of praise spoken to me or about me, and being able to reassure myself that I really am a person of value.
It’s kind of pathetic, actually. In truth, I always feared someone would find out who I really was underneath all the accomplishments, and reject me. The real me was cowering within somewhere, wondering how long I could keep up the performance, continuing in everyone’s good graces. I tended to separate myself from others in order to have time to work on all these components that made up my identity; rather than cultivate friendships, I worked on skills and abilities, exercised to keep my body the way I felt was acceptable, or read to cultivate my mind and increase my understanding and my ability to converse well and comfortably with others.
Fast forward to motherhood. Not only did I want to be perceived as a really great mother, I wanted to be a genuinely good mother–the love that flooded me with the birth of each child filled me with a deep desire to do right by them, to let them know how deeply they are loved, and to help them understand all they needed to know in order to have a full and satisfying life. This passion consumed me, partly because of the deeply felt responsibility it entailed, but to a far greater extent because of the joy and love, the incredibly deep satisfaction, that is part and parcel of mothering. I wanted nothing but the best for my children–you might even say I wanted them to have a “perfect” life–so I set out, in my typically perfectionistic way, to make their lives perfect.
For me, this didn’t mean giving them everything they wanted, or indulging them. Actually, I firmly believed that denying them certain things, training them in manners and self-discipline, and providing them a challenging education was the way to achieve this. I focused a lot on excellence. I felt that it was very important to teach them to do everything with excellence–that there is a standard of excellence that is objective, not just a “personal best” kind of excellence, but an excellence attainable through thoroughness, attention to detail, and surrounding oneself with things of genuine goodness and beauty while seeking to imitate them. I wasn’t mean–at least I don’t think I was–but I was firm, and everyone knew that things were to be done well; consequently, everyone did things well! We had a lot of fun as well–from my perspective at least, not everything was drudgery–and I think they’d tell you the same thing.
Even so, it’s hard to teach what you don’t know, and although I don’t think they ever doubted for a minute that I loved them, I know my instruction left an enormous gap for them in the area of loving others. Loving and accepting others as they are, without imposing on others the standards you hold for yourself, was something I didn’t have a high degree of skill in. I knew it was a very important thing, and we did read stories about its importance and discuss real-life situations involving the importance of loving others, but as I said, I worked for approval. I honestly didn’t have a good grasp on the reality that one could be loved just for being a son or daughter or friend. Somehow I’d come to believe that the things I cultivated in myself were what I had to offer to others, not just myself as a person. Because of this, and because I was very busy making their lives perfect, I left little time for friendships; they didn’t get to see much in the way of the loving give and take, the serving of others and fun and sharing that goes along with friendships.
Fortunately for them, and in spite of what I often remember as me being critical, my kids somehow learned to make and be good friends! I often marvel at their gracious acceptance of others, and their ability to make good friends. At the same time, I know that each of them has struggled to various degrees with being very hard on themselves, and I sometimes fear that I overdid the “excellence” thing; if I could do it over again, I would choose what St. Paul describes as “a still more excellent way.”
In Cor. 13, St. Paul explains that all of the amazing talents in the world are meaningless if they are not done with love. He then goes on to describe love as being patient, kind, not envious or proud, not haughty, not selfish, not rude or insisting on its own way, not irritable, touchy, or resentful; it’s patient with the weaknesses and failings of others, always encourages and believes in those it loves, never gives up hope, and is willing to endure difficulty for the sake of others–even those who disappoint them–because it understands and accepts its own weaknesses and failings. It has compassion for the weak and unattractive, and imperfect and different.
No human being has ever possessed all of these characteristics of love except for Jesus Christ, and it is only by His grace that any of us can become loving in this way. Nevertheless, if we begin by accepting this love and forgiveness from Him, and are willing to be patient and forgiving of our own failings, perhaps we can impart this kind of love to others, especially those we love the most.
If I could have a do-over, I would hope to find a way to accept the love of God and others without feeling the need to perform in order to get it. I would focus on loving others, covering over their faults instead of pointing them out. I would coax that fearful and weak part of me out of hiding, into the light of life and love, even though sometimes it hurts. And while I would still want my children to strive to do their best and to learn all they can, to love things that are true and good and beautiful, I would want the first thing they think of to be a concern for the well-being of each person they meet more than whether or not they live up to any particular standard. Because love is more excellent even than excellence itself.