The Wrong Sort of Perfection

Clean houses never last, but hugs and kisses do.

Clean houses never last, but hugs and kisses do.

I briefly mentioned this post of Cindy’s a couple weeks ago. She said (among other wise things):

I have met enough homeschool super-moms to know that no one is doing it all. So many times when we are reading about other families, our imaginations make up all sorts of details that don’t belong in the real picture. I have said this before but we imagine someone having all their own priorities which we read about and all of our own priorities. It takes a little bit of discipline when reading through blogs not to panic. Calm down everyone. I promise no one is doing it all and if she is she is not a fun person to be around. And I have seen those types too. They get more done than the rest of us but they leave a trail of destruction.

And when I read that, I thought of the perfect homeschooler I knew once. We’ll call her Martha, both for Martha Stuart and the biblical Martha. I didn’t know her very well. She was more by way of being the friend of a friend. I didn’t get to know her very well because she really didn’t have time in her schedule for new friends. She didn’t have much time for old friends. We all knew she had a perfect schedule because she told us so. She had ‘open houses’ where she invited non-homeschoolers to come to her home and see how it was done. She talked a lot of people into homeschooling, but every family I ever knew of who learned how to homeschool from her burned out within one or two years and put their children in institutional school settings.

When people spent time with her they didn’t leave feeling good, recharged, and uplifted. They left feeling inadequate, inferior, and like failures. Sometimes this happens because we have an inferiority complex that is only soothed by the failures of others. But when everybody who spends time with you leaves feeling depressed, inferior, and as though they don’t measure up, something is wrong with how you present yourself and/or what you do.

I only spent time with her on the phone twice, and both times I hung up feeling like a slackard,inadequatee, undisciplined, and insufficient. Well, most of those things are true. But I’m not sure two short conversations with a near stranger should bring them out so heavily, and bring them out so burdensomely, without any sense of hope that things could be better.

The point I’m trying to make here is not that she had a schedule and I don’t do schedules very well, but that the use she made of her schedule and organizational talents did not bless others, it discouraged them.

The same week I experienced one of those depressing (and very short) conversations, another mutual friend called me. She needed a sitter because she had a sudden doctor appointment. I said of course I would watch her children, naturally, who wouldn’t in such an hour of need? Well, Martha wouldn’t. It interfered with her schedule. No, I am not kidding. Later my friend told me that on rare occasions Martha might permit an emergency to interfere with her well laid plans and help a friend out, but the friend was always made aware of the sacrifice Martha was making.

I understand very well the need to make it clear to some people that just because I am home all day that doesn’t mean I am doing nothing and am therefore available to provide free daycare while they go to the mall, do the grocery shopping, run to the library, take a nap, and then show up three hours later than they told me they’d return, all while they breezily imply that this was a mutually beneficial relationship since my children had the honour of playing with theirs under my supervision. But that’s a blogpost of a different color. This level of perfection falsely so-called that makes ones friends feel like they are a burden when they need your help in an urgent situation- this is not truly perfection. This is unlovely, inhospitable, and unkind. But if all this post does is make each of us think critically of the Marthas in our lives, than I have been a Martha type myself when I meant to encourage.

I thought of ‘Martha’ again today while reading this post at Patti’s Hobbits8 blog. She says she was looking over what she’d gotten done the previous week and:

I felt that I hadn’t gotten much done. I had looked back over the many things that seemed to interrupt my purposes and realized that all those things were important. They were the interruptions of life and involved relationships with other people.

Isn’t that often how we are? The affirmation of the concrete is so much more obvious to us than the more nebulous ‘interruptions of life… and relationships.’ On the one hand, we decry Martha and her schedule, and then we act just like her. We spend a week lamenting the things we did not get done and never noticing the things we did get done.
Or we pride ourselves on our lack of rigid structure and never notice that we are still are not Marys, because the goal of being ‘relaxed’ is hardly a reasonable facsimile of Mary’s approach. Her goal wasn’t to be relaxed and unstructured. It was to sit at the Master’s feet and be where he wanted her. A solid schedule and self-discipline may be exactly the tools God has in mind for you to use to make you a better servant. But they need to be tools, not goals.

A clean house, a tidy schedule, a freezer full of prepared meals- these look good, and they are not bad things at all. They often make the relationships possible and enhance our ability to serve. A messy house, a chaotic schedule, and deciding what to prepare for dinner at the last minute may be relaxed, or they may be simply chaotic lack of discipline. Neither end of that spectrum is a substitute for the proper goal of putting Christ first and being available for healing and the messy and untidy work of relationships, helping others, being available, and serving.

(Updated, redrafted, spellchecked, and edited 9/16)

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