Earlier this month, Dale and I picked out this year’s Christmas tree, and brought it home, only to discover that its flaws weren’t quite as easily hidden as we thought. I lamented what felt like our failure to choose a perfect tree, but then I remembered a column I wrote almost 30 years ago, when I wasn’t yet 40 and our children were still young. The piece was part of a series of monthly columns I used to write for my denomination’s periodical, and it reflected on our family’s search for our Christmas tree the previous year. What I said then is a good reminder now.
Last December, when we went on our annual family pilgrimage to cut a Christmas tree, I couldn’t help noticing the similarities between our search for the “perfect” tree and my own tendency to expect perfection in myself and others.
Searching for the perfect tree can be a real ordeal. The tree has to be tall enough so we can cut off some of the lower branches for extra decorating greens; it has to be the right shape (not to fat or squat or spindly). We don’t want bare spots, yellowing needles, dead branches, crooked trunks, or cockeyed spires. Of course, it’s almost impossible to satisfy all these conditions in one tree. So we settle for something less than perfection.
The funny thing is that once we get the tree home and decorate it, we are almost always happy with our choice. Is that because we rationalize away its flaws, or because we accept and appreciate the flaws as part of the unique character of that tree, or because we become blind to the flaws as we concentrate on the beauty?
I think there’s some of all of that. Having made our choice, we make the tree work for us. We put the worst side toward the wall, hang the larger ornaments in the holes, pick out the dead needles, and trim off protruding branches. The result is not something fit for the Christmas issue of Better Homes and Gardens, but it is our tree, made special by our loving touch and our collection of ornaments, each with its own history and special significance.
I also have high expectations for myself, my husband, children, parents, and friends. I want things to be as perfect as they are in my fantasies – sort of like I always look for the perfect tree to match the one I have pictured in my mind. By always expecting or wanting something close to perfection, I set myself up for failure, disappointment, guilt, and disillusionment, because just as there are never any perfect Christmas trees in the field we go to, there are no perfect people either.
Where do I get my notions of what constitutes perfection? Why do I have such a need for perfection? How do I balance learning to settle for less than perfection with continually reaching to be better than I am right now? These are all questions I wrestle with constantly.
For one thing, I make the mistake of comparing myself and my life with other people, and inevitably, given my tendency toward low self-esteem, I pale by comparison. I also think that perhaps I have fallen prey to the television and movie industries that often paint unrealistically glowing pictures of life and thus feed my fantasies of the way things “should” be but aren’t – in my life anyway. I’m not as patient and loving to my children as TV mothers often are; my husband doesn’t whisk me away to exotic places when things get boring at home; and I simply can’t be the immaculate housekeeper/successful career woman/super mother and wife that populate many fictional towns.
On top of all this, I think that my indoctrination with so-called “Christian perfectionism” has set me up for somehow believing that if I make mistakes, do something wrong, or don’t live up to everyone’s expectations, I am not a good person. When Jesus said, “Be perfect,” I’m almost certain he did not mean that anything less than absolute perfection is unacceptable. His relationships with people clearly show that he accepted and loved them even when they failed or behaved less than perfectly. While he did not condone bad behavior, he loved people unconditionally and extended his grace to them, forgiving them for their imperfections and failures and inviting them to change and grow. Many Christians don’t seem to be that forgiving with either themselves or with others.
The Christmas tree analogy helps me put my need for perfection in perspective. Even though I always look for the perfect tree, I can settle for less and be very happy. I learn to see the imperfections as things that make the tree unique and special. In fact, I soon forget all about the flaws and begin to notice the beauty. I really don’t need perfection in a tree, in myself, or in anyone else, to be content. It feels good to let myself off the hook of needing to be perfect all the time, and to experience the resulting joy of liberation.
Reprinted from “Phoebe’s Journal, ” Evangelical Visitor, February 1985, p. 28.