All Souls Kansas City

April 14: “The Greatness of “Good Enough” with Rebecca Gant, Intern Minister

Click here to start at the sermon.

My husband Joe finished high school at 17 and went straight to work driving a forklift in a warehouse. He earned what seemed to him like a lot of money- he could afford his sweet bachelor pad, frequent tickets to rock concerts, and all the Tuna Helper a guy could want. He worked at various physically demanding jobs for about seven years, but eventually that wore thin. So at age 24, thanks to Pell Grants and an aunt and uncle who offered a room in their house, he started college to become a pharmacist. Once he started school, my laid-back, rock and roller boyfriend turned into a study warrior. He studied like no one else I had ever witnessed– he made flash cards and wrote outlines and was disciplined in following a plan for how to approach each class. And it worked– he graduated with honors and got a job easily. Soon after graduation, he was hired as a clinical pharmacist at the hospital in Emporia, Kansas. We had married the year before, so we moved to Emporia where I got a job teaching English at Emporia High.

As a new pharmacist, he approached his work with the same energy he had brought to his studying– bringing work home and helping to develop the clinical program at that hospital. Soon he was the clinical coordinator, and he continued working long hours. Once our daughter was born, however, his approach changed. He stopped accepting assignments and bringing work home so that he could be present as a father to our daughter.

I was pleased that he wanted to be so involved. I admired him for choosing family over work– and at the same time, I was kind of confused. He had worked so hard — and now he was giving it all up? What happened to his ambition? Shouldn’t a person strive to be the best in all things? He chose to focus on what was most important to him– his family– and let go of all the striving and long hours. He would do his job competently and sufficiently, but he would not work to be a star. He had chosen “the medium chill.”

The phrase “the medium chill” comes from a blog post written by David Roberts on the website Grist. Roberts lives and works in Seattle with his partner and children. In the post, he writes: “About a year ago, I was visiting with an old friend of mine who lives in Portland now. He’s helping to run a tech startup, working 80-hour weeks… with barely enough time at home to maintain a relationship with his dog, much less a romance. The goal, he said, is to grow like crazy, get bought out by Google, and retire at 40. “It’s the big chill, man!” (No, not the movie). I shook my head and laughed. “I’ll take the medium chill!”

Roberts, the writer of the blog, and his partner have good jobs, and have opportunities for advancement, but they are choosing to “step off the aspirational treadmill” in order to have more free time to focus on relationships and experiences. He says they live in a small house in an inexpensive neighborhood, drive an older car that has seen better days, and find joy in simple pleasures like reading with their kids and date nights with cheap wine and a rented movie. Going further down their respective career paths would earn more money, but he writes “it would also mean more work, greater responsibilities, higher stress, and less time to lay around the living room with the kids.”

I realize that these two examples don’t represent all people. The choices that the writer of the blog and my husband made to pull back at work are made possible by some privilege. They both have jobs that pay well enough that they don’t need to knock themselves out to earn enough to live on. Not everyone has those choices. But among Americans with privilege, these two people behaved in ways that are counter-cultural. My somewhat puzzled reaction to Joe’s choice to focus on family and the writer’s friend’s ambition to earn a ton of money are more reflective of what the American culture tells us is important and makes us valuable– accruing wealth, achieving more and more, and striving for perfection. If we choose not to buy more, do more, be more, then our culture tells us we are not doing our part– that we are not enough just as we are.

I confess that I have fallen prey to the lure of achievement and perfectionism. This past December, for a school project, I created an Advent Vespers service, and held it at my home congregation in Lawrence. At that service, I was planning to talk about all the expectation that our materialist culture imposes on us at Christmas time– the push to create the perfect family photo, decorate and cook like Martha Stewart, to buy expensive gifts– and the attendees at that service would be invited to make their “to-don’t” lists. These might include a decision to NOT stress about the food and instead order pizza –or– to NOT worry about how clean your house is and have people over –or– to decide to NOT compare yourself with others in terms of gift-giving or entertaining or card-sending.

As I was preparing that service, I spent a lot of time worrying about creating a beautiful altar for the front of the sanctuary. I did not feel confident in my ability to pull that off, so I was stressed out. I wanted it to be simple, but elegant, and to look beautiful in the candlelight that I had planned for that evening service. I wanted it to be PERFECT… I hope you’re starting to hear the irony of this situation.

The service was on a Friday evening, so on Wednesday, I spent about 3 hours shopping at all the home decor stores in Lawrence for items for this altar. I ended up spending way more money than I had planned, so now in addition to worrying about how the altar would look once I put it together, I was also worrying about how I would justify spending that money and thinking “what are the ethics of returning the items if I just used them for an hour?” In short, I was a mess. I was making myself sick worrying about the stupid altar for a service that was all about letting go of things that don’t matter– like being perfect- like material goods- like keeping up appearances.

After driving around with all that stuff rattling around in my trunk for a day or two, I did finally come to my senses– I actually laughed out loud when I realized the absurdity of what I had been doing. I returned all the beautiful things that I had bought and instead gathered items from home and asked my friends if I could borrow things from them. And the altar was lovely.

This was a personal illustration of how perfectionism can drive us. I think I’m pretty self-aware, but it got me. In preparing for that service, I had moved beyond just trying to do something well to trying to make it perfect, and as a result, I was stressed and anxious and cranky.

Brene Brown, a social science researcher who studies and writes about vulnerability and shame, explores the difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence or self-improvement. Perfectionism, [she says], is the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame….[it’s] about trying to earn approval…. Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other focused: What will they think?… [Ironically, instead of improving performance,] perfectionism hampers achievement. It is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis or missed opportunities. The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations, and being criticized keeps us outside of the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds.

Brown’s point about missed opportunities rings true to me. When I am struggling with perfectionism I am likely to avoid situations in which I might look foolish or somehow not live up to the impossible standards I have set for myself. This affects my ability to try new things, to take appropriate risks, and to accept change gracefully.
In addition to affecting mental health and opportunities for new experience, perfectionism and excessive focus on achievement has a negative impact on relationships as well. It leaves people with little time to build and maintain relationships.

After meeting and working with many dying people as a palliative care nurse, Australian Bronnie Ware wrote a book titled “The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.” One of the five most common things that her patients said they regretted was that they had not stayed in touch with their friends. Now at the ends of their lives, they wished they had made time earlier in their busy lives to keep those connections strong.

Another regret expressed by many patients — and by almost all of her male patients — was that they wished they had not worked so hard. These patients went on to share that they had spent most of their lives at work, and had not taken time to initiate, develop, and maintain their relationships. The had missed much of their children’s growing up years, and had lost time with their significant others.

But of all the regrets that her patients shared with her, she reports that the most common was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Living up to other people’s expectations meant that these people never felt like they had lived their lives authentically.

Our culture’s over-emphasis on achievement and perfection has costs larger than those individual costs. This also affects the work we do for justice in this world. With problems as large and seemingly intractable such as climate change, racial injustice, and suffering at our border, we can get sucked into believing that what we do doesn’t matter. We may feel that we do not know enough, that our efforts won’t be enough, that we are not brave enough, that WE ARE not enough. We’ll never live up to the impossible standard of perfection. And so we may do nothing.

The irony of what I’m telling you is that the truth is– each of us individually does not know enough, cannot do enough, is not enough. Individualism is as much of a losing proposition as is perfectionism.

But while each of us individually cannot do enough or be enough– together– that’s a different story. If we can overcome our tendency toward individualism and learn to rely on one another, together we can know, do, and be enough to make a difference.

I’d like to see our culture let go of the unhealthy striving and focus on some things that I think are worth striving for. There are some characteristics I’d like to see our culture value more. Instead of valuing individualism, I’d like to see us put more value on mutual dependence. Instead of valuing competition and winning, I’d like to see us value collaboration and cooperation. Instead of valuing perfection, I’d like to see us put on our red Make America Good Enough hats.

I’d like to see us strive mightily to live the good enough life. In this good enough life, those of us who have plenty of resources will feel secure enough to share them, and those who lack resources will receive a sufficient amount. In this good enough life, all of us will have the healthcare we need, and none of us will have to choose between paying for medicine or paying for food.

I’d like to see us strive mightily to be famous– not like the Kardashians, but like the person in Naomi Shahib Nye’s poem who is “famous to shuffling men who smile while crossing streets,/ sticky children in grocery lines,/ famous as the one who smiled back./” and “…famous in the way a pulley is famous,/ or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,/ but because it never forgot what it could do.” Living a life that is true to who you are is a great– no scratch that– good enough way to be famous.

I’d like for us to strive to turn down the volume on the voices that say we are not enough and instead listen to the one that spoke to the woman in the poem after she had lain down to wait for death. The voice that told her YOU ARE ENOUGH so that after resting she could dress herself with wings and fly away.

I’d like to see us strive to have more dance parties with our friends- whether we can tango like the lions or not- and to know that we are good enough at dancing and good enough at being who we are and that human connections are the most precious gift.

Culture change is slow and cumbersome, but we can start with ourselves. That will be good enough.