Love IdolBlog / Produced by The High Calling
Mrs. Huseman, my sixth-grade teacher, knew the problem, at least in part. She named it for me, but I didn’t know that day what she meant. And at first, I took it as a compliment.
Mrs. Huseman wrote the word in loopy cursive: “perfectionist.”
Naturally, I saw the A+ before I saw the P-word. But when I discovered that word—perfectionist—I locked my gaze upon it as if it possessed a certain magic. I read her note while twirling strands of hair around my index finger.
“You have a perfectionist quality in you that I so often see as a great asset,” Mrs. Huseman wrote.
There was more. She filled two sides of that pink notepaper: “Beware of it, however, and try to always view things with an open mind. After all, there always will be tomorrow.”
Her words were a well-intentioned warning for a girl who yearned to be the best at something. Anything. I wanted the pat on the back, the neon-light validation from my teachers and peers, and perhaps a one-paragraph announcement in the community-church bulletin informing the public. I wanted to feel significant. I realize all of that now.
If I could, I would sit knee-to-knee with my twelve-year-old self on the school playground, take her by the hand, and persuade her to cut herself some slack. I’d tell her she ought to heed the words of her wise and discerning language arts teacher. I’d show her how to make a paper airplane. I’d tell her to go ahead and wear her favorite fuchsia-colored leg warmers, even if the other girls made fun of her. I’d mess up her hair.
I’d dare her to get a B.
But back then, I didn’t hear the teacher’s warning. I doubt I would have listened to my older, wiser self either. I heard only that one single word, and I let it roll around in my mouth: perfectionist. I rather liked how it sounded. Because if you took off the last six letters, you were left with something . . . perfect.
I knew what perfect meant. Perfect meant approval. Perfect meant significant. Perfect meant contentment.
But, fat chance of perfect. On the ball field and in the mirror, I was the antonym of perfection. I figured that if I was God’s idea, He must have been taking a vacation when His helpers pieced me together on the assembly line.
When I looked at my reflection, I saw an odd-looking little creature staring back with crooked teeth. I wore a bra, not because I needed one, but because I wanted to fit in with the crowd—which held considerable sway over almost every decision I made. I wanted good grades to please my parents who valued hard work and straight As. I made up silly lyrics to songs, hoping to win my friends’ approval. And I stole a necklace from the jewelry store to impress the popular girl who dared me to do it.
I knew what the Bible said about me, but I measured my worth by other barometers: the mirror, report cards, and my performance among peers—even if it broke well-established moral rules.
On the playground, I was voted as the kid most likely to trip over her shoelaces. When team captains chose sides for kickball, I was the last one picked. My top dresser drawer held a collection of green and yellow ribbons—the consolation prizes for runners who slogged across the finish line last. I did score two points in basketball in the seventh grade. Trouble was, I scored for the rival team.
No, I wasn’t perfect at all. But I wouldn’t mind if Mrs. Huseman thought I was.
Mrs. Huseman had instructed us to write our autobiographies for a class project.
Mine included the high points, naturally: crisp certificates from piano contests, photographs of me posing for the local newspaper with a shiny French horn propped on my lap. I strategically left out the green and yellow ribbons, or the fact that I lost the district spelling bee the year before on a three-letter word.
My autobiography also included a detailed, handwritten plan for the next ninety-three years of life. I set high expectations and mapped out a future that would, I hoped, give me the sense of validation that I deeply craved. At age twelve, I was an early adopter of the now-popular school of thought that if one wants to achieve her dreams, she should write them down. I was my own life coach. While most girls my age planned slumber parties, I mapped life strategies. I wrote that I would marry a handsome man, birth twins—one girl and one boy—all while managing dual careers as a highly acclaimed psychiatrist and a famous book author. Death would not come knocking until age 105.
What I didn’t know then is that life has a way of making its own plans, no matter what you write down.
But in that single moment, my planning paid off handsomely. I got an A+ on my autobiography. Along with the grade, Mrs. Huseman wrote me that two-sided note. “You really are a busy girl,” she wrote. “And your future—well—you certainly have it all spec’d out! If you do live to be 105, you’ll have many tomorrows!”
I read and reread her letter that day in the classroom.
Perfect? Isn’t that what Mrs. Huseman said I was?
If I couldn’t be the fastest runner or the prettiest girl, maybe I could be perfect at trying to be perfect. That had to be good, right?
I cinched my eyes tight and could almost hear the crowd’s applause—the roar of validation ringing in my ears. I envisioned my name tacked to the bulletin board in the school lobby. The announcer’s voice crackled over the gymnasium’s loudspeaker—Here she is, Miss Jennifer D-U-UUUUKES! And not a single soul in those bleachers would remember that I was the goofy-looking klutz who once scored a layup for the wrong team.
I filed Mrs. Huseman’s letter away at the bottom of a dresser drawer, back in a decade when banana combs were still en vogue. I didn’t read it again for another quarter of a century. I was too busy making all those dreams come true, gathering up a couple of decades worth of “attagirls.” It would be years before I learned that a woman can scoop up almost everything her little heart desires, while missing out entirely on what her emaciated soul really needs.
I was firmly in the grip of the Love Idol.
Taken from Love Idol by Jennifer Dukes Lee. Copyright © 2014. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
Note from the author...
I’m delighted to share this excerpt of Love Idol with you at The High Calling community. The idea for this book was conceived in workshops and over dinner tables with several of the editorial team members of The High Calling—an organization that values good work and excellence. Trouble was, I have too often allowed my “good work” to define my worth. Love Idol is about laying down performance-based living and our own approval ratings, to live freely in the love and approval of God. But we shouldn’t settle for mediocrity either. We shouldn’t stop pursuing excellence in our work or writing down our dreams, as young Jennifer did in this story. But we’d do our souls a favor if we stopped letting our performances define us, and found freedom by settling into our identity as beloved children of God.
Performance vs. Potential
The gap between performance and potential is far from neutral. On the positive side, it inspires. Think of the young professional who sees her future self in a seasoned colleague and dreams of achieving great things for God. Optimism and drive mark this view. On the negative side, however, the gap can be as haunting as it is illusory. Haunting because it confirms just how much we come up short; illusory because the gap tortures us with false truths about rank and value. For those who suffer the latter, even Jesus’ promise to be sufficient in our weakness goes unheard.
In The High Calling series on Performance vs. Potential, we’re taking an honest look at both perspectives. Will you join us? Whether you’re a dreamer seeking growth, or a doubter seeking peace, we believe you’ll be encouraged by what you read.
Cover image courtesy of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.