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Thursday, February 13, 2020

News Flash: No One is Perfect

I still hedge when I use “the word” (anxiety).  The stigma surrounding any condition less than perfection is astounding.  In a culture nearly obsessed with identity (and which ones are good or bad or right or wrong or worthy of love) and a Church just as nearly preoccupied with transformation (and how one might achieve what is good or bad or right or wrong or worthy of love), it is difficult to strike a balance between who we are and who we are becoming and whether or not we should be either of those.

This morning, I woke up to an email with headlines that reminded me that upwards of 40% of graduate students have moderate to severe anxiety.  Read that again.  The number is significant and so are the descriptors.  We’re not talking about a few students feeling sort of nervous about final exams.  This is an epidemic.  At the orientation for this PhD program, a second year student strongly advised the incoming cohort to take advantage of therapy, because, “all PhD students need it.”  I rolled my eyes, but he wasn’t wrong.

There’s something else, though, and I think it might be time to just throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks.  When I think about the full range of my life so far, it becomes obvious to me that I didn’t develop anxiety because I am a graduate student. 

I have always been this way. 

As a child, various people described me as sensitive, high-strung, an old soul, and a perfectionist.  I’m fairly certain we do not usually recognize the circumstances that are forming us until we look back at them over time, and the problem with that is that the circumstances no longer exist in their truest form within milliseconds of their happening.  They are immediately colored by perspective.  If you have ever listened to two (or more) people describe the exact same moment, you know this is true.  Cinematic effects in recent years have told powerful stories of perspective by layering one story on top of another, often inserting jarring, repetitive material at specific points of the narrative, but I’m not sure we get even that much in real life. [i]  There are no moments captured exactly how they were felt and perceived from every perspective.  Photographs and home videos might come closest, but even they are expressed through a particular (literal) lens.  We don’t have the whole picture.

So, when I sat down to write this (on a train, on the way into Boston, because it seems that this is the only time I have to write for the sake of writing anymore), I had absolutely no intention of exposing a memory from the fourth grade.[ii]  I had no idea how formative it was when it was happening.  And, in full disclosure, I’m not even quite sure I have it “right.”  1989 was a really long time ago. 

It was spring.  It was MEAP week (Michigan standardized testing).  Nine-year-old, all A “gifted” student, me was sitting by one of my favorite people in the world… honestly, probably pretty average, but the power of a well passed orange Jolly Rancher at oral reading time should not be underestimated.  It was time to fill in the bubbles on the scantron for our names.  Read that again, our names, because this is important.  My friend peeked over at my scantron and told me in no uncertain terms that I was doing it wrong.  He went by a shortened version of his name, and our teacher had gone to great extremes to be clear that we had to enter our legal names, as found on our birth certificates.  It was understandable that he thought I might be missing something, but Lisa was the fullest name I had.  I wasn’t doing it wrong.  But within moments tears were stinging the backs of my eyes, because I was questioning myself.  If it was possible to get my name wrong, would I be able to pass this test at all?  Here it is for the third time: I was crying over filling in the scantron bubbles for my name!  Formative.[iii]

I don’t really know if this was the first moment in which I realized that I was going to strive for perfection in everything, forever, but it has to come close.  It seems overwhelmingly tragic that a child at a desk in an elementary school classroom would feel this kind of pressure (literal and figurative), and I can’t point to this experience and pretend that it was healthy, but it hit me, today, that it also was not all bad.  This part of who I am probably feeds my ability to achieve… at least sometimes.

And so, here I am wondering whether 40% of graduate students suffer from anxiety because they are graduate students or whether it is simply more likely that people who live with anxiety are capable of achieving more than those who don’t, which is how they get into (and finish) graduate school in the first place.

If you know me, or if you’ve read me, you know that I do not advocate for a theology/theodicy that insists that everything happens for a reason or that bad things happen to good people in order to promote growth, but there is some careful nuance going on here, because I absolutely believe that “suffering produces perseverance.”[iv]  This doesn’t mean that suffering is heaped upon us for the sake of perseverance.  I think perseverance can come in other ways, too.  I don’t think suffering is necessary.  But, there is no denying that a residual effect of suffering is often perseverance, and although I have often wished my character might be built in another way, I am also not willing to waste the potential inherent in anxiety.  If it drives me to be better, so be it.

I do want to issue this positive spin on anxiety with a clear directive toward self-care/soul care.  It’s important to know what your baseline is, because while a certain amount of anxiety can serve you as the drive and persistence to be the best you possible, there are going to be days when you cross that line and anxiety becomes crippling.  No one who reads this should walk away thinking that I am encouraging an increase in those days when you’re gripped with terror and shaking and can’t get out of bed.  For me, recognizing and managing anxiety triggers is essential to my ability to be well.  I know there are about five things that trigger anxiety in me at a greater than normal level, and I know I can deal with two to three of them at a time before I’m in over my head and feel like I’m drowning.  Most of them are foreseeable, which actually allows me to plan for triggering events in such a way that they are manageable when they come.  But, you can’t plan for everything, even if you are as awesome a planner as I am!  There are going to be times when the stars misalign just right and every trigger is pulled at once.  The only way to really prepare for that is to consistently take care of yourself.  See a therapist.  Burn lavender candles.  Take medication if it has been prescribed to you.  Avoid triggers when it is healthy to do so.  Take a bubble bath.  Take a nap.  Go out with friends.  Binge watch Netflix.  Write a blog.  Befriend people who give great hugs.  Eat a candy bar.  Read Scripture.  Go for a long walk.  Get a pet.  Quit your job.  Move to a deserted island.  Whatever.       

Here’s the truth: If my body, family life, personal life, and work are all functioning at 100% perfection, I’m golden.  However, this is the case on approximately zero percent of the days I actually experience.  I suspect I am not alone in this, and I also suspect there are a whole lot of us out there (especially in the ivory tower) overthinking every little thing and pushing harder and harder for perfection until we run ourselves straight into the ground.  I’m pretty sure that’s the marker for crossing into unhealthy patterns that wear us out and diminish the positive potential of anxiety.  Like most everything in life, balance and moderation are key to health.

There’s a lot of me in this post, precisely because I think it takes authenticity and honesty of narrative (to the best of our ability, see: moments of time and perspective) to make any kind of real headway in this life.  I think there are a lot of related universal principles, though, as well, and the first one might be grace.[v]  May we give grace to ourselves to be imperfect.  Instead of panic, may we recognize both the potential for doing something better next time and for being something closer to the people we were created to be but also the potential for accepting that we are not in complete control of the universe, and sometimes we have done the absolute best we can.  May we recognize that this may very well be the move toward being the people we were intended to be, the move toward being exactly who we are.  May we be full of grace even when we are not the best and may we celebrate wildly with the people who are doing it (whatever it is) better than we are!  May we learn from others and may we learn from ourselves and may we wake up again tomorrow and try again.


[i] The past three episodes of “This Is Us,” which aired 1/21, 1/28, and 2/11 are a pretty good example of this phenomenon.
[ii] That was yesterday.  It’s taking me a long time to get this all out.
[iii] Strangely, in this era of reconnecting on social media with everyone we have ever looked in the eye, this is one person I have never managed to find, which is, I guess, why I am almost comfortable with the fact that I just called him out as “average” in a public forum, but just in case this is the post that goes viral, I want to make it clear that I still tell my boys they should present Jolly Ranchers to girls they like… :)
[iv] See Romans 5:3…  Also, Romans 5:3-5 is critical here, in context: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
[v] And everyone is so surprised… #sarcasm

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