There is a castle in my daughters bedroom towering over her toys. This castle began as a modest cardboard soy milk crate when my daughter was four years old and over the next four years was added to, and added to until it became a palatial expanse with cream painted walls and gold topped turrets; It is the perfect castle.
Zoe and I finished painting this castle last year, four years after we started it, when she was eight years old. It should have been a wonderful moment, but the truth is, what began as a mother-daughter moment had become a mother-driven monument, and the more driven I became about creating the perfect castle for my child, the less fun the whole experience became for my child; And the hilarious thing is, by the time we finished it she’d grown out of playing with the dolls that fitted in it anyway!
I can laugh at it now, but the reality is that this castle reflects back an uncomfortable truth to my soul that part of me would rather not see, and I need to see it because this is not the only castle in my life. I have found myself in burnout at least three times in my adult life, striving to build castle after castle, striving to ‘perfect’ a life that was never made to be perfect in the first place. The only reason that I am brave enough to say this out loud is that I suspect I am not the only person with a castle in their closet in some form or another.
The strange thing with building perfect castles is that it is never about the castle, not really. Drivenness is never just about the success or failure of a particular project, accomplishment, event or relationship, it is about the payoff my soul gets from that success. But the very fact that my soul is searching for that pay off means that I somehow feel inadequate without it. Perfectionism and drivenness is about proving our own significance, revealing that underneath this need to prove ourselves lurks the underlying fear of our own insignificance. Subconsciously perhaps we hope that if we can prove it to everyone else, maybe we’ll start to believe it ourselves.
“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.”
Michael Law, Author
The funny thing with castle building though, is that it never actually assuages these fears. It only ever propagates them. The castles only ever get bigger, looming over us, shadowing our joy, and life does not thrive in these shadows. We live on our treadmills, getting nowhere but always feeling urgently the need to deliver, to run, to please, to achieve.
No matter what I do in my life, no matter how many or how large the castles I build, as long as they are built from a place of fear, anxiety or a need to be loved they will never fulfil the longing underneath these drivers. Castle building always strangles the life out of life, never breathing it in. The drivers of my ego will only ever suffocate me, sucking away the moments that would strengthen me from the inside out.
Somebody recently told me ‘If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly’. I was quite affronted at the time. I don’t like the idea of doing anything badly. But as I think about it, some things are worth doing badly so other more important things can flourish.
Building a cardboard castle is worth doing badly if it means I actually do it with my daughter instead of for her, and enjoy the journey of creating a beautiful, messy wonderful cardboard world together. When my children are all grown up and I am towards the end of my life what will I judge success by then? I’m discovering (often the hard way) that real life is not actually about what I achieve, but how I achieve it. And the real achievement is actually a life well lived, a life full of flourishing life, not a successful career in castle-building. I appreciate the words of author George Leonard:
“Perhaps we’ll never know how far the path can go, how much a human being can truly achieve, until we realize that the ultimate reward is not a gold medal but the path itself. (George Leonard, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term)
Van Gogh is one of my favourite artists. I love the colour and vibrancy of his work. It doesn’t resemble reality very much at all, and yet it brims with life. I often compare Van Goghs work with another artist I am familiar with, John Glover, a Tasmanian artist from the 1800s. John Glover was English, but had immigrated to Tasmania later in life.
His paintings of the Australian bush are absolutely perfect, by this I mean, not a leaf is out of place, not a twig is misshapen. His depiction of Australian landscape and flora is so perfect it doesn’t look like the Australian bush at all. There is no life in it, no truth, and yet it is so precise, so perfect.
Our natural world is absolutely beautiful, but it isn’t perfect. The form of a tree is misshapen, messy and chaotic… and yet so full of beauty. A sunset sprawls across the sky in uneven waves of colour and light, the stars speckle the heavens in unruly luminescent splatters. How perfectly imperfect it all is, how messy… much more like a Van Gogh than a John Glover.
Human life, like nature is messy. And in this messiness of life there is phenomenal beauty, beauty that cannot be contrived or replicated. The beauty is not despite the messiness and brokenness, but often because of it. There is no beauty without messiness, no life without brokenness.
There is one thing alone that is perfect and that one thing is the one thing that makes all other things perfectly as they should be, perfectly complete, perfectly whole, perfectly beautiful, perfectly wonderful. And the most wonderful thing is that this perfection is not possible from us, but it is only possible for us, that is:
‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out all fear’ 1 John 4:18
The releasing love of our Father who doesn’t ask us to build castles, doesn’t expect us to be perfect, but whose perfect love casts out all our fears, the fears that would otherwise drive us onto our treadmills. As Poet Leonard Cohen wrote… “Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
‘Forget our perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’. We are supposed to be jars of clay, cracked and imperfect, that’s how the light gets in, and also how the light radiates out.
‘For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.’ 2 Corinthians 4:6-7
Because there are no perfect castles. No perfect people. Only perfect love.