Chasing Perfection and Finding Grace (Maybe… Sort of?)

Today marks the one year anniversary of a fairly big life change for me; the end of a relationship, several friendships, a shift from one era to another. As I have been reflecting on the passed year I’ve found that though I have established myself in whatever this new phase of my life is, I don’t yet feel like I am where I am supposed to be. And before you point it out, yes, I know that I myself have said that I believe that by existing on this earth we are all where we are supposed to be, but it certainly doesn’t always feel that way. Which is very difficult for me. It’s hard not to tell myself that if I were doing the “right” things, coping with life the “right” way, then I would magically feel in place and at peace. It turns out that sometimes no matter how you try things are just hard, sometimes you’re just in transition and it’s not very comfortable. However, that doesn’t stop the voice in the back of my head from telling me that maybe if I were somehow better, life would be too.

I have been a perfectionist for my entire life. I distinctly remember bursting into tears on several occasions while trying to draw illustrations for the stories that I’d write as a kid. I couldn’t make the scribbles on the paper look like what I saw in my mind and it frustrated me to no end. Although I have since recognized that perfection is, in fact, unattainable in its very nature–and therefor have tried to train myself to recognize when my perfectionist side is getting the better of me–the same tendencies remain. I am one of those intolerable students who is actually disappointed when I get an A- instead of an A, so when life itself completely defies the “perfect” plan I have in mind it’s a rigorous physical, mental and spiritual challenge. Worse than actually dealing with imperfect situations is my unfulfillable desire to at least handle imperfect situations perfectly. “I should be able to accept this better, then I wouldn’t feel so upset”, “I should be able to trust more fully that I will be taken care of, I am a bad person/follower of Jesus for not being able to trust” and “I shouldn’t be angry, being angry isn’t the right way to feel, so I am not allowed to feel that way” are just some of the thoughts that go through my head in imperfect situations. Of course, the wiser part of my mind knows that even if I could deal with everything perfectly I couldn’t escape the messiness of being human, but my heart doesn’t always believe it.

Even now, when I feel a bit lost and out of place, it’s not that I don’t know what I want. I still have that “perfect” picture in my head for how I want my life to go. However, more than ever I worry that my vision and my wants are not the things I should want. “If I were perfect I wouldn’t want anything but to do good in the world and I would be content to do my best and trust that God will bring the rest.” But, I also realize that wanting is part of being human, and that many of my desires are completely pure and reasonable, maybe they are even there for a reason. So I find myself struggling to find the balance between trusting that my desires–for meaning, for a sense of home, for inspiring lifework, to find love and family–are worthy of pursuit, and recognizing that pursuing them may not go according to my “perfect” plan, and that that may be for the best. This is hard for me to believe for myself, despite the fact that I have total faith that things will work out for the other people in my life. I never doubt that my friends will find happiness and love and meaning, even if they don’t find it where they expect to. I completely trust that there is a good plan for everyone else, but struggle to treat myself and my story with the same grace. That voice in the back of my head tells me that it’s different for me because, unlike everyone else, I have to be perfect; as if my imperfections are somehow less forgivable and less human than the imperfections of people I love.

I have been trying to learn to embrace imperfection as part of my experience as a human being. This spring I got a tattoo, just a little one, five tiny stars on the inside of my arm. The artist finished and asked what I thought and I immediately began scrutinizing every corner and line, after all this will be under my skin forever! After making a few of the tiny improvements I requested, she turned to me, “You know, tattoos are imperfect by nature, you could try to make it look better forever, but eventually you’d mess it up more than if you just let it be.” Now every time I look at my tattoo and notice the imperfections I think of those words. No, the stars aren’t uniform, no, that one isn’t as pointy as I would like it to be, I stare at them and I can feel a tiny part of me start to panic. But when I move my arm farther from my face and look at the larger design it is beautiful and meaningful, and exactly what I need it to be.

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AUTHOR’S NOTE: I almost decided not to write this post because that voice in my head suggested that it would be self-indulgent to share something so wholly oriented around myself, something I couldn’t imagine would be of much use to someone else (and obviously “perfect Hailey” would only write things that she believes would serve others). But as part of my journey towards grace and embracing imperfection I have been trying to talk to myself the way I talk to my friends. I would never tell a friend that their struggle wasn’t worth writing about. I would tell them that there’s someone out there who would be encouraged by their story. I would tell them that vulnerability is a powerful thing to share. 

Reflections on Belonging and Justice

Since writing my last blog post I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the implications of a greater belonging. What does it mean to place ourselves in a larger story? One thought that kept coming up again and again when I asked myself that question was, “it means there’s no such thing as ‘not my problem.'” By which I mean that if I truly believe in a larger belonging then I can’t ignore it when I hear about instances of injustice and suffering. I do not exist in a vacuum, nor does poverty, or hunger, or war. This doesn’t mean it’s always my job or my place to directly address every given instance of injustice in the world, but it does mean that it is my job to care. 

Personally, I tend to have a fairly strong sense of responsibility about the pain I see in the world, especially when I feel particularly aligned with a greater story and sense of belonging. But even the simple act of caring brings up further questions. How do I put caring into action? How do I be of service to others in this given situation? How do I respect the feelings and stories of others while still offering my support? How do I reconcile my desire to help and see peace and justice in the world, when the privilege I have (as a white, middle-class, straight woman) may create a barrier between me and the people I want to be of service to? This last question is one I encounter almost every time I learn of an issue of injustice previously unknown to me. I have tried to learn what I can about how my privilege affects how I see the world in order to discern how I may best be of service to others and help to magnify their voices instead of playing the loud hero myself. It turns out that this is a fairly complicated discussion to enter. Thanks to centuries of racism, sexism, ableism, colonialism and a whole host of other “isms”, and the divides caused by those prejudices, many of us are prone to forget that we don’t always know what’s best for people in situations vastly different from our own. We often make judgements in order to try to find solutions instead of listening to the needs of others and attempting to understand them as people instead of just problems to be addressed. I believe that living into a greater story means listening to these smaller stories and understanding where, why and how they connect to that greater story (is my history major side showing yet?). Belonging means no such thing as ‘not my problem’ but it also means listening and trying to understand how we can serve, instead of assuming that our perceptions and therefore our solutions are the best ones. 

Once we have listened and learned sometimes it is very clear what we can do to address injustice, we can make changes to our every day lives to live in awareness of larger issues. We can be mindful in our consuming and support fairtrade organizations, we can be conscious of our impact on the environment and do our best to limit it, we can support local facilities that work to alleviate pain and poverty, etc. However, more often solutions to the injustice and suffering we see are unclear or seemingly non-existent, and the issues themselves are complicated to the point of being completely overwhelming. For the last week or so my Facebook feed has been overflowing with news from Gaza. Heart wrenching photographs of parents cradling their lifeless children, statistics showing the number of non-combatants who have be wounded and killed, arguments about who is at fault and who we should support and how we should pray… and all I can think is that men, women and children are dying. And there’s nothing I can do but pray that it all stops. It’s almost paralyzing, and sometimes I can’t help but feel angry that all I can do is pray. It doesn’t feel like enough, especially when nothing will undo the suffering that has already occurred. But what else can we do? As individuals? As a country? We see the injustice, how do we respond? What is our role in this larger story? How do we cultivate peace? 

This post won’t have a satisfying conclusion, because I can’t answer any of those questions. I have been wrestling with them for a long time but any glimmer of an answer leads to more questions and more wrestling. At this point, I am simply trying to have faith that the story is far bigger than I can imagine and that somehow we are heading towards the world of peace and love that is so desperately needed. 

Some Thoughts On Belonging

When I was six years old, I distinctly remember knowing exactly what being a follower of Jesus meant to me. Our homeschool group held weekly “park days”, where a large group of moms would sit and chat while all of us kids ran around on a playground or in a field playing together. When I was six, making clubs became very chic among us youngsters: “girls’ club”, “boy’s club”, “vegetarians’ club”, clubs based on what books we liked or didn’t like, you name it. However, for some, part of the appeal of this fun, new trend was that some people were “in” and some people were “out”. This did not sit well with six-year-old Hailey; so I set out to create one, all-inclusive club that anyone and everyone could and would be part of. I called it “the Jesus club”, not because I had any desire to evangelize my fellow elementary schoolers, but because I truly believed that this was the kind of club Jesus would form–a club where anyone is welcomed, just the way they are, with no conditions or tests to pass in order to belong, no criteria to fit, just a place where everyone belongs. So I ran all over the playground, eager to make sure that everyone knew about my club that everyone could be part of. Of course, as a first grader, I had very little concept of who my audience was. I didn’t understand that you just don’t run around inviting people to your “Jesus club” in San Francisco.
“Do you want to join my Jesus club?!” I excitedly asked one of the intimidating older girls (by older girl, I mean, she was 9).
“No!” She scoffed, wrinkling her nose in disgust and tossing her head, “I’m not religious.”
I was hurt and confused, but kept right on making sure everyone knew that they were welcome in “the Jesus club”. (Although, on the car ride home I did have to ask my mom what “religious” meant.)

Six-year-old Hailey
Six-year-old Hailey

As a six-year-old I had an unquestioned sense of belonging. I knew that not everyone would always like me, I knew that I wouldn’t be friends with everyone (as disappointing as that was), but I also knew that I belonged in the largest sense of the word. I had complete faith that my life fit into a larger picture, and that even though it may be small in the grand scheme of things, it mattered anyway.

Needless to say, my twenty-year-old self does not always find these truths as easy to believe. Twenty-year-old Hailey feels like she doesn’t quite fit anywhere, she worries that she’ll never find love, that her life doesn’t matter and that she will live with her parents forever because the idea of finding another home is terrifying. But, oh goodness, she wants to find that home. No matter how scary that longing is, she wants to find that larger sense of home so badly.

I am going to go out on a limb and guess that these fears and longings are not entirely unique to me. In fact, I would hazard a guess that they are very common, especially in my fellow young adults. This stage of life is full of searching for things, like one big life treasure hunt. This can feel very stressful and isolating. “Quick! I have to find important and meaningful work, a college degree that will be useful but that I am passionate about, a place to live, a significant other, a close-knit group of friends with whom I can create a support system…” The list goes on and on, as if we have to do everything we are going to do in life in the short and turbulent decade that is our twenties. This is, of course, not true. But sometimes it certainly feels that way, and I think that for many of us the anxiety about crossing things off of our life treasure hunt stems from a strong desire to belong. We’re in a hurry to find where we’re supposed to be in both a physical and metaphorical sense. However, I would suggest that the answer doesn’t lie in looking, but in creating.

For me, this means striving to be more like six-year-old Hailey. I want to be at peace, having faith in a greater belonging. I want to trust that I am part of a larger story, and that no matter how small, my part matters. And I want to be less concerned about finding where I fit in, and more concerned with creating spaces of belonging for the people in my life. In fact, I think shifting that focus is an important first step. For me, it is relatively easy to see how the people in my life fit into a larger story. I do not question their belonging the way I question my own. However, when I attempt to create spaces and situations that help them feel like they belong, I am forced to align myself with them and recognize that I, too, belong.

In case all of that sounds completely vague, let me clarify. Creating spaces of belonging is not some fancy, grand process. It doesn’t mean moving into a house with five people you want to live in community with, or hosting a regular gathering, or anything like that (although it could mean either of those things). When I say creating spaces, I simply mean making everyday choices and cultivating patterns in your relationships that give the other person a safe space and a sense of belonging. Make time for people, remind them that their feelings and struggles are valid, go the extra mile to make them feel loved, be honest with them, reassure them that they matter and belong, allow yourself to be a safe place for someone who may not have one. It sounds really simple, like cheesy friendship advice out of one of those American Girl books I had when I was nine. But treating everyone out of the belief that they are beloved truly does cultivate a greater sense of belonging in both you and them.

So, now, like the good college student I am, I will answer the “so what”? So what? Who needs belonging anyways? Are you saying that I am not an independent individual? Are you saying that I need other people to be happy? Well, in a way, yes. Sure, we are all independent individuals, but we’re also so closely knit that you simply cannot isolate your existence from anyone else’s existence. As humans we share everything. So, you have two choices: you can reject the idea that we all belong and live in a world where some people belong and others don’t (warning: this route leads to war, sadness, oppression and lots of other not-so-fun circumstances) OR you can choose to live into the belief that we all belong (warning: pain is a side effect of caring, so, sadly, there is no easy option). I believe that choosing to live into this belief and align ourselves with a bigger story helps us realize our full potential to create change, beauty and meaningful relationships.

Moral of the story: As a person on this planet, you belong just as much as every other person on this planet. You matter to the greater story and don’t need to match any criteria to prove your belonging. We all face times where we do not feel that greater belonging and struggle to accept it. That is okay. (But even when you feel this way you do still belong and there’s nothing you can do about it.) Living into that sense of belonging is what allows us to unlock our full potential and create meaningful relationships. Treat others with the knowledge that they belong just as much as you. And treat yourself with the knowledge that you belong just as much as anyone else.

A Quick Note From My Sickbed

I realize that I am falling behind in my blogging duties (again!). I just wanted to let you all know that I am working on a post which should be up in the next few days, however I have been very sick this weekend, thus the lack of timely posting.
In the meantime, I wanted to thank you all for viewing and sharing my posts so much in the past few weeks! I am delighted (and surprised) to find that people actually want to read the things that I write, so thank you, thank you, thank you.

xoxo
-Hailey

Wanted: Spiritually Fulfilling Lifestyle to Suit Idealistic Millennial

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Last week my dad and I travelled to North Carolina to attend the yearly Wild Goose festival. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Wild Goose is a four-day event based in Christian spirituality, but with a focus on social justice, art and intentional practice. To quote the website:

We dream of a movement where everyone is welcome to participate. We are intentionally building a space in which we invite everyone to value, respect, and fully affirm people of any ethnicity, age, gender, gender expression, sexual identity, education, bodily condition, religious affiliation, or economic background, particularly the marginalized. We are committed to fair trade, gift exchange, ecological sanity, and economic inclusion. We strive for high standards of mutual respect, non-hierarchical leadership, and participative planning.

As someone who has grown up in a very intentional Christian household, but whose experience with “the Church” is very limited, Wild Goose offered a unique, faith based communal experience that was far more my speed than more conventional or traditional religious gatherings. To put it simply, the event was very San Franciscan-friendly, which gave me a space to reflect upon my own desires regarding faith, community and how my spirituality influences what I want to see and create in the world.

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At Wild Goose I attended a meeting of millennials, intended to be a short meet-up. The discussion quickly turned towards the future of Christian spirituality, how the current and past structures affect our generation, and where we long to see change. I know that there are many opinions floating around about millennials, especially on the internet; we’re lazy, selfish, entitled, overly-idealistic, apathetic, you name it.  Some of these opinions conflict, there are millennial defenders and there is anger and tension on both sides of the generational gap. I would like to point out that this is nothing new; every new generation finds a seemingly unbreachable gap between themselves and the previous generation. I heard many complaints not only about how we, as a generation are viewed by our elders, but also about the areas of existing institutions that many of my peers long to see “fixed”. Simultaneously, I heard a lot of talk about working towards the center of existing institutions. Now, maybe I am able to hold this opinion because I have a fair amount of privilege, but I wonder if the path for many millennials lies not in fixing broken systems to make a place for ourselves, but in creating new spaces that provide what we need now, not what our parents or grandparents needed.

However, what I would like to reflect upon is not the dynamics between newer and older generations, but instead on what I heard at that meeting and what I continue to hear from members of my generation regardless of religion or lack thereof, and that is passion. I see passion and a tangible sense of longing for connection with others and with the world as a whole. These people are full to the bursting point with hopes, dreams, ideals and a zealous desire for justice and equality. I looked around the circle at the Wild Goose meet-up and I saw eyes on fire, hands gesturing fervently, and an intense, earnest desire for change and belonging. “So, why don’t we mobilize and DO something?” a voice in the back of my head asks. And I wonder. I think that maybe our downfall is that many of us care deeply about so many things and have access to knowledge about so many issues that it can be completely overwhelming and paralyzing. We are so inspired to save the world that we don’t know where to start. There is something to fix in every facet of life. There is something to change in every system that exists and we can’t do it all. So, far too often, we do nothing. Sometimes life gets in the way, very real practicalities weigh us down. After all, how do you save the world when you have forty thousand dollars of school loans to pay off? You want to work at a non-profit, or volunteer your time, but that dollar amount will only get higher the longer you wait. You feel like you have to either postpone living, or postpone freeing yourself from debt.

I recognize that in this discussion I come from a very unique and privileged standpoint; I have grown up in a faith oriented family with parents who believe in living intentionally into their values. I have grown up outside of institutionalized religion and have no desire to define my own spirituality by rebelling against the tradition I was taught as a child. And I have grown up in a city known for its art, social justice and marginalized community. However, I do passionately share the longing for justice, community and fulfilling lifework that I see in my fellow millennials. I think that a huge first step for us as young people is to recognize that how we live our lives does matter a great deal even when we have to work our non-dream-jobs in order to pay off those loans, or when we have to remind ourselves that dropping out of college halfway through to start a non-profit probably isn’t wise since we DO actually want a degree, or when we can’t see how we fit into the larger picture of what we want to see in the world. Living in line with our values by making every day choices that promote justice and love in the world is important, not only because it may be all we can do for the time being, but because making intentional choices that align you with your values on a daily basis takes practice. If we establish intentional rhythms while we are in the process of transitioning to adulthood, those practices will be easier to maintain and reassess throughout our lives. Deciding what you want to be about and finding small ways to live into that on a regular basis is a key action towards being the change you want to see in the world. Your choices matter, whether they are good or bad. The way you live can inspire others to live more intentionally, creating even more change and a sense of community.

Growing up in various forms of intentional community, I have observed that it is these shared practices and common intentionality that brings people together. However, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to cultivate a sense of community and belonging. I know that for me, personally, I struggle to accept the fact that I matter, that I have a purpose, and that I am exactly where I should be right now. But I am. I believe that all of us already belong. We share this planet, we share resources, we share pain, we share hope, we are all here. Where else would we belong? I believe that each of us were placed here intentionally by a Creator, thus the basis for our belonging. Even if you believe that the human race is one big accident, we are all one big accident together, and no one belongs more or less than anyone else. However, we don’t always treat one another with that sense of belonging, and often feel isolated by our own and others’ criteria for belonging. Learning to accept our own belonging without relying on other people or institutions to validate it, helps us to understand that the people we encounter belong too. For me, recognizing and living into that sense of belonging is a huge part of becoming who I want to be. If I belong, then I have a purpose; if I have a purpose, then I have a choice to either live into it or disregard it. Either way, my choice matters.

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