Halfway to Perfect

It’s tough to admit, but as a kid, I was a teacher’s dream come true: quiet, thoughtful, intelligent, motivated, and full of potential–teacher’s pet material through and through. A straight-A student who loved school even more than I loved my Barbie dolls, I was the kind of kid for whom perfect scores on weekly spelling tests were the norm; anything less was a source of trauma and distress. I loved nothing more than to be left alone with my own imagination and either a good book or a pack of crayons, a pair of scissors, and an unopened package of construction paper. And aside from my rather checkered past in the sports arena (which essentially amounted to one memorable year on the boys baseball team followed by a few decent years on the girls softball team), my list of accomplishments and achievements took shape early and grew steadily with every new endeavor I set my sights on.

At parent-teacher conferences, Mom and Dad would inevitably hear semiannual reports of my studiousness and careful attention to detail. They would hear tales of my exploits in mathematics (“Multiplicones” in third grade were the kingdom in which I reigned queen, as each new level I achieved in memorizing the multiplication tables meant that a new “scoop” of ice cream would be added to my teeteringly tall cone on the bulletin board), and they would be presented with examples of my artistic prowess (my hand-painted replica of Van Gogh’s self-portrait from fourth grade was deemed worthy of prominent display in my dad’s office for at least a year, as I recall). They would come home with guarded but glowing reports, not wanting to offer more praise than was due, but wanting, like any good parent, to encourage me and spur me on to continue to do my best in all my pursuits. They were proud of me, I knew, and it felt good to make them proud.

And so the seeds of my perfectionism were sown.

Or perhaps they had been sown from the time of my conception (here, the old “nature vs. nurture” debate rears its ugly head), and in my childhood they were simply cultivated unwittingly by my parents, teachers, and anyone who gave me praise. Whether by birth or by upbringing, those early years found me growing–like a weed–into the perfectionist I am today.

From the perspective now of adulthood, I can see that being a perfectionist has proven to have both its benefits and its liabilities. On the benefits side, it’s given me a pretty solid r?sum?: an undergraduate degree from Mountainthe honors program at a respected university, study abroad in exotic locales, ministry roles in a variety of settings, a master’s-level seminary degree complete with awards and teaching assistantships, and enough other eclectic experiences to make me seem (at least on paper) like a well-rounded and competent individual.

But on the liabilities side, the list is more difficult to craft. More difficult because it includes things I’d rather not acknowledge, like: insecurity and even, at times, self-loathing; feelings of being a failure and of having consistently fallen short of my own and others’ expectations; constant craving for more affirmation; a sense of hopelessness for the future, given that I’ll never be as successful as I’d once thought I could be; depression, anger, and sometimes even doubt that God is truly a loving God … and the list could go on. Perfectionism–“extreme or excessive striving for perfection”1–has defined me, for better and for worse, as the person I am today.

So I have started to think lately about mediocrity. It’s a pretty big leap from perfection to mediocrity, I know–especially in a culture that is infatuated with success, accomplishment, and achievement. But I’ve been thinking about mediocrity lately because it’s becoming clear to me that perfection is overrated. And truth be told (Shh! Don’t let this next part leak out to any practicing perfectionists you might know …), perfection is an impossible goal, and I for one am not interested in spending the rest of my life chasing after something I can never reach. So mediocrity, even though it may not be the stuff that Olympic dreams are made of, is starting to look more and more like a viable alternative for me.

But mediocrity has gotten a bit of a bad rap in modern times, having become synonymous with words like “inferiority” and “weakness.” The word itself derives from the Latin mediocris, which is comprised of two parts: medius, meaning “middle,” and ocris, meaning “jagged peak.” So the original, literal sense was something like “halfway up a mountain.”2

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an expert mountain climber by any stretch of the imagination. But I did, in the company of several people who actually knew what they were doing, climb a mountain a few years ago–one of the “fourteeners” for which Colorado is known–and I can attest to the fact that getting to the summit was no small feat. But, once we made it, the view from the top was phenomenal! It was worth the effort of having risen before dawn, endured burning thighs and frozen toes for eight hours (it was February), and deprived my lungs of the oxygen they so dearly love. It was, without a doubt, entirely worth the effort.

But what if I hadn’t made it to the top? What if, due to lack of determination (or red blood cell capacity) or unforeseen injury, I had only made it, say, halfway up the mountain? Would that have made me mediocre? Yes, in the most literal sense of the word, it would have. But here is where the negative connotations that we attach to the word “mediocrity” are not helpful, because they shift the emphasis from the fact that I would have made it halfway up a mountain to the fact that I would have (only) made it halfway up a mountain, a shift that overshadows the possibility that even a journey halfway up a mountain can be a valuable journey nonetheless. And even so-called mediocre outcomes can teach us something about life, ourselves, and the world God created.

So I’m beginning to think that maybe mediocrity deserves another chance, an opportunity to return to its rightful place as a perfectly respectable and desirable alternative to the ever-elusive perfection some of us foolishly seek. But maybe, instead of calling it mediocrity, we could call it something like “the halfway point,” and we could think of it more in terms of where we’ve yet to go (by God’s grace), rather than where our accomplishments thus far have taken us. Since striving for mediocrity has the decisive ring of “settling” to it (and since settling is not the sort of thing we’re called to do as Christ-followers), maybe instead we need to think of our striving in terms of a striving for the halfway point where the wisdom of Scripture and the church is brought to bear on our journey and where our worth is no longer defined by what we have accomplished but is instead defined by the radical, counter-cultural message of the gospel to love God and love others. When I open my ears to this message, I hear something drastically different than what I’ve allowed myself to hear most of my life: I hear that my accomplishments are not my accomplishments at all but are wholly gratuitous, gifts that are given to me for the edification of God’s kingdom. Talents, resources, passion, even individual achievements and experiences–all are gifts, unmerited, freely given, pointing (if I have the eyes to see) toward the giver of every good and perfect gift. In striving for the halfway point, we acknowledge God’s gracious willingness to allow us to participate in the renewal of creation–and we stop acting as though that renewal were entirely dependent on our competence and success.

Slowly but surely, I am learning both to let go of my need for perfection and to recognize that everything good in me and anything good I do points me beyond myself toward the author and perfector of faith. Striving for the halfway point as an alternative to ceaseless straining for the impossible goal of perfection is an alternative I’m learning to embrace, not because I’m interested in lowering my standards, but because I’m hungry for something more. And, strange as it sounds, being content to make it “halfway up the mountain” may be the key to that something more, unlocking the door into a refreshing new perspective where I am not defined by my achievements but where I am set free to use my gifts in service of something greater than my own ego needs and self-gratification.

But I’m enough of a realist to know that perfectionism is more like a disorder than it is like the common cold; it’s not just going to go away after a few days with a little bit of rest and some fluids. Like a mental or physical disorder, perfectionism is something that will probably be with me in varying degrees for the rest of my life and that I will always (I suspect) have to be aware of and take care not to let consume me. But knowing that there is indeed a halfway point that is an acceptable alternative gives me hope and relief. And it puts an unexpected twist on the experiences of my childhood: maybe there is hope yet for a recovering teacher’s pet. 

Notes

1 Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., “perfectionism.” 2 From the Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com/index.html?l=m&p=9).

Arika Theule-Van Dam works for the editorial department of Baker Academic in Grand Rapids, Michigan.