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What's Your Thing? A Review of Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist - Part 1

A photo of the cover of the book Present over Perfect by Shauna Niequist
Present over perfect by Shauna Niequist

In Shauna Niequist’s Present over Perfect, she quotes Richard Rohr who said, “The skills that take you through the first half of your life are entirely unhelpful for the second half.”  The book was a Mother’s Day gift from my daughter Allison and despite her weekly encouragement to start reading, it took me three months to simply look at the back cover. I knew what I would be getting myself into: a challenge to look at my life and make changes that might be hard. You may remember my last blog post where I wrote about decluttering and the difficulty I faced. This new challenge is similar but it’s harder; it’s more personal.

 

So what did Rohr mean when he said that the skills I’ve acquired over the first half of my life will be little use for the second half? When I thought of my life, from my earliest memories until today, my mind immediately jumped to the fact that I have become educated and self-sufficient; I’ve become an “I can do anything” kind of woman. I have learned to be responsible and to be nurturing to, for and of others.  How can that be unhelpful? I learned resilience and dedication from my years as a competitive figure skater while college and graduate school taught me that continued hard work toward my goals would bring success. Marriage and motherhood taught me about a new kind of sacrifice; with a husband and three children I had so much more to think about and worry about and take care of but I was armed and ready. My careers brought me satisfaction; I could bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan. Okay, not all of the bacon, but some of the bacon. I love my family, friends and co-workers. I’ve hammered nails for Habitat, helped strangers change flat tires and made countless meals for friends in need. How could any of this be unhelpful?

 

Unfortunately, as I continued to read, I discovered that there are more skills that I have acquired. I’ve learned to act happy when I’m not. I’ve learned to perform and entertain when I’m exhausted and empty. I’ve learned to try to make things okay when they just can’t be. I’ve learned to move at lightning-speed, making a trip to the store to get more stuff, only to turn around and head to the dump or Goodwill to make room for the stuff. I’ve learned to make things look easy when they’re not and to show up when what I really want and need is to crawl into bed for a week. I am responsible, capable and sensitive to a fault, always wanting things to be perfect for others and struggling, deeply, when anyone is in pain. Being nine when my parents divorced only brought out the intensity of these traits; I remember trying desperately to make things okay, year after year after year, when they simply never would be. I remember my mother yelling at me one day saying, “Stop trying to fix something that can’t be fixed!” At the time, I was twelve years old but it wasn’t until I was well into my 40’s that I finally faced the truth: my parents would never be okay if they were together. I must have been exhausting to be around. While focused so much on doing what I thought needed to be done to make everything look, feel and seem perfect and to make everyone be or feel okay, I wasn’t actually there. I wasn’t present and I wasn’t paying attention. Perfection, whether inside or outside of my home or my head had to be attainable; I just had to try harder.

 

On day 20 of my decluttering project, I wrote in my journal: “It’s exhausting to manage so many people’s emotions.”  At the time I was sick with worry about one of my children and when I wrote those words, I was stunned. They came pouring out onto the page and then slapped me cold. I think I’m starting to understand what Rohr was talking about.

 

I’ll be back soon to continue my review and to share my experiences as I try to cultivate the skills that will allow me to be more present than perfect but until then, I want to leave you with a thought and a challenge from page 33: “The very thing that makes you you, that makes you great, that makes you different from everyone else is the thing that, left unchecked, will ruin you.”

 

What’s your thing? What is the thing that left unchecked, might ruin you?

 

Writers note:  Just a few hours before submitting this post I took a short hike, and as a couple of young women passed by, I overheard one of them say: “It’s just that I’m trying to manage everything and everyone and it’s exhausting.”  I know I’m not alone and I don’t know where this exercise is going to take me but I do think I’m going to like where I land.