The Burden of Perfection
By Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
In Pat Conroy’s memoir, My Losing Season, Pat tells the story of his senior year as point guard during the Citadel’s basketball season, and what he learned from losing. He also describes the people in his life who smashed him to pieces.
Conroy’s father was a master at demeaning, attacking and undermining his son. He did it verbally, emotionally. Conroy writes, “There was nothing my father could not teach me about the architecture of despair. I knew all its shapes and blueprints, the shadows of all its columns and archways. My father could send me reeling down its hallways and screaming into its bat-spliced attics with a curl of his thin-lipped mouth. His cruelty baffled me, shamed me, and I promised myself I would never be anything like him.”
Conroy’s life is marked by the persistent and severe ways in which his father tore him apart — and ways in which he returned to irritate the most severe wounds so that they never healed. “My father possessed a genius for scab-flicking, for zeroing in on that tenderest spot of the psyche where healing was most difficult, exposing the rawness of the wound again and again.
Conroy’s psyche was tested further by his coach, Mel Thompson. His harsh words and loathing attitude beat down Conroy and his teammates. Conroy is haunted by particular phrases: “You’re just mediocre.” “You might as well not shoot.” He and his teammates struggled against a coach who reduced them to pieces: “My teammates had found themselves reduced to a state that was birthplace and hermitage and briar patch to me —a despair with no windows or exits, a futility that made hope vain and future unthinkable.”
“Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest.” But what is this labor that Jesus talks about, this heavy burden. It is certainly not work, per se. Hard work is central to any productive, contributing life. Jesus worked hard and so have all who have made any contribution to this world. Those who do not give themselves to labor end up soft and shallow and self-indulgent. So what kind of labor does he invite us to flee.
It is the drive to prove ourselves against the put downs of the past, in order to establish our worth. It is doing in order to be. To be worthy of life, to be acceptable, to be loveable, I must measure up, perform, please, prove myself worthy, acceptable. Continually trying to justify one’s existence on the planet. This is the heavy burden that Jesus is talking about, of which Conroy is an extreme example.
Every Jew listening would have known precisely what he meant. The burden, the yoke was the law, that massive body of statues and commandments found in the books of Moses which every good Jew was bound to worry about and struggle with lest he fall out of favor with God and community. His very existence, happiness, well-being depended upon his performance of these high and heavy demands.
But where do we find anyone burdened by the struggle to keep such a law today. Most of us don’t even know the Big Ten let alone give our whole energy to the exacting performance of the 613 some central commands of that early God. Oh, in a corner here or there, this old passion and compulsion remains. And we smile when we run into it in one kind of orthodoxy or another.
But where do we encounter that kind of scrupulosity, that compulsive passion to please in our culture today. Well, I think it is still there if you look around, out in full force. The rules have changed, as have the faces we hope to please. But the compulsion is just as strong, as wearing and deadly a burden.
I am convinced we have but secularized the legalism that Jesus came to deliver us from. No longer is it fear of God. Rather it is more often fear of the culture, the crowd, the colleague, the community. And the rules are just as elaborate and intricate as the Torah and Talmud, if unwritten and subtly indicated. Rules about how thin we ought to be, what circles we ought to run in, how much power we ought to amass, what perks we can display, what community we ought to live in, what values we must tolerate. On and on and on.
Arthur Brisbane, the newspaper editor, used to tell his best cartoonist, Windsor McKay, that he was the second best cartoonist in the world. An associate once asked him who was the first. The editor replied, “I don’t know, but it sure keeps McKay on his toes.”
So life for many, salvation, happiness depends upon measuring up, being one of them, winning acceptance, gaining approval. And I think it starts out early. It seems we all start out small, inferior, clumsy, wondering about our place in life. And there is no point blaming our parents. If they undermined our self-respect even in a minor way compared to Conroy’s father, it is because their parents did it to them, and their parents before them. His father must have had terrible doubts about himself which he projected on his son.
And it becomes even more of a problem for adolescents. There exclusion is experienced as the ultimate death and damnation. Many teenagers will sell their soul, do whatever is necessary, ingest whatever is necessary, wear whatever is necessary, mouth whatever is necessary, to win approval, salvation.
I am not sure but what these young ones aren’t a reflection of an adult society where it is more subtle but equally powerful, this religious compulsion. I call it religious because it seems to achieve a level of ultimate concern and passion in the lives of so many. They seem to worry so about how they look and what they wear and who they are seen with and how they are getting on. There is such drive behind the passion for success and status. Such frenzy to make it, to achieve the symbols which make you acceptable.
I do not condemn. I am just saddened by a scenerio in which so many seem to be working so hard, seem so unable to be comfortable just as they are and where they are, seem so impelled to prove themselves over and over again. Because it doesn’t work. It does not produce what we want, the unconditional affirmation of the world around us. Someone has said that expecting the world to treat you fairly, to reward you, to honor you, to affirm you because you are a good person, is like expecting the bull not to charge you because you are a vegetarian.
It takes openness to an alien, a different word than the words of parents or peers. “You who are so weary and heavy laden beneath the yoke of all the demands you labor to satisfy,” says Jesus, “come to me and I will give you rest.”
What is this soul rest? It is rest in that strange love that affirms just as we are, no matter how the day has gone, no matter how anyone else feels about us, no matter the achievements and failures of life. It is the deep-seated recognition that we don’t have to prove a thing to anybody. We have a right to be… who we are and where we are. With all our strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, profile and peculiarities, we are acceptable. We need seek only to be faithful and useful. Everything else is a quite secondary game to be played light-heartedly as a game if at all.
It is rest in the grace of God we see in this Jesus. Salvation is the grace that comes in him, liberating us from the condemnations of the past so that we may live forward with free spirits. Lewis Smedes died this past year, too young, after a life of inspiration to many of us. If he had written nothing else but his description of the grace that is rest for our souls, his life would have been fulfilled. Let me return to it again.
“Grace does not make everything right in our world.
Grace’s trick is to show us that it is right for us to live;
that it is truly good, wonderful even,
for us to be breathing and feeling,
at the same time that everything clustering around us is wholly wretched.
Grace is not a ticket to Fantasy Island;
Fantasy Island is dreamy fiction.
Grace is not a potion to charm life to our liking:
charms are magic.
Grace does not cure all our cancers,
transform all our kids into winners,
or send us all soaring into the high skies of sex and success.
Grace is rather an amazing power to look earthly reality full in the face,
see its sad and tragic edges,
and yet feel in your deepest being that it is good and right
for you to be alive on God’s good earth.
Grace is power to see life very clearly,
admit that it is sometimes all wrong,
and still know that somehow, in the center of your life, “It is all right.”
This is one reason we call it amazing grace.
Grace is the one word for all
that God is for us in the form of Jesus Christ.”
That’s rest, is it not — rest from the struggle to be somebody, to prove to a father long gone, or mother present, or colleagues and friends or crowd that you are somebody special, rest in the reality that no matter what else you are, you are nothing less than a son, a daughter of a loving God.
Conroy finally found that rest in a friend who became this grace, an English professor who befriended him and encouraged him to become a writer. But it was not the gift of language that brightened the eaves of Conroy’s brain: it was also the gift of Doyle’s friendship. At a pivotal point the Professor told him, “You’re too hard on yourself. For reasons I don’t understand, you are deeply unhappy, and it pains me. I think you could be special if you only thought there was anything special about yourself. Someone has taught you to hate yourself. I hope I haven’t crossed some line, Mr. Conroy. I value our friendship so much.”
With those words and friendship Conroy was able to begin putting the pieces of his life together again. L. Gregory Jones, dean of Duke University Divinity School comments on the story. “All of us emerge in pieces out of complex factors that include our own sinfulness as well as the sins we suffer from others —haunting words, tattered emotions, in all too many cases physical wounds. We search for friends of our mind, people who mediate God’s grace in Jesus Christ in ways that give us back the pieces of our lives in the right order.
But then as we reflect on those people who have been the friends of our minds and given thanks for the healing balm of friendship they offer us, the question rebounds: To whom are we called to be holy friends? Who needs us to give them back the pieces of their lives in the right order? So I ask, might this not be the light yoke, the easy burden that Jesus offers, calls us to bear.
James Brownson, dean of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan tells how he learned from his father, a minister. “My father and mother would take us boys with him on Sunday afternoons to call on the shut-ins of the church and we would sing for them. This duty, I must confess, was among the most onerous I remember being imposed upon me …. We boys hated those Sunday afternoon trips: cooped up in the car, dragged into strange smelling nursing homes, fussed over by old folks. We would stand idly by while my parents made small talk … and then on cue would dutifully sing. The singing was actually the highlight of the visit because it usually elicited a warm response from our listeners and because it signaled that our departure would be imminent.
“There was this one woman in particular whom we visited with considerable regularity and with even less than the usual dim enthusiasm. I do not remember her name. She was very old, barely able to speak and seemed completely paralyzed. My father would put his ear almost next to her mouth, and struggled to make out her words. We could not interact with this woman, and she could show no signs of appreciation for our efforts. I remember feeling as if I was singing to a wall. I didn’t know if she could even hear or understand what we were doing.
“But in the very last week of our time in Roseland, at the ripe age of nine years, I would come to realize how mistaken I had been about our visits to this woman, and would begin to gain insight into the strange way in which our sorrows and our redemption become interwoven. This was, my father had told her, our last visit. My father had accepted a call to serve as professor in Michigan, and so we were saying goodbye. But of course, we would sing for her before we left. Her favorite hymn was always the same – ironically, the hymn that was also the favorite of my brother Billy in our evening family times.
“Jesus, lover of my soul,
let me to thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
while the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past.
Safe into the haven guide,
O receive my soul at last.”
“As my family sang these words, to my amazement, I saw streams of tears flow down her cheeks, and watched her frail body shake as she sobbed without making a sound. In that moment something was suddenly made clear to that nine-year-old, something deep and important. Those bothersome Sunday afternoon duties meant more than I had imagined. At that moment I began to glimpse a reality that would confront me with greater depth and power as I continued to grow: the subterranean river of our lives flowing far below the polite niceties of normal conversation, beneath the casual and routine order of our lives, between and among us, …the river that slowly, ever so slowly, nourishes this whole broken world back to life.”
What a marvelous picture of a burden that turned out light, because a burden was shared with others. Shared above all with the one who is gentle and humble of heart in order that someone with so little to give to this world might know that she is still deeply loved. That’s rest, knowing that wherever we are in life, and whatever it may bring, of stumble and sadness, glory and gladness, we are all loved, all the way to the end …. and beyond.
Copyright 2003 Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.