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Category: Patience

Paralyzed by perfectionism

In January, I set a goal to complete a rough draft of my next manuscript this year. For the last six months the subject has been rolling around in my head, and for the last two, I have been itching to get the project underway. The words are dancing on my fingertips, hovering over my keyboard. I feel emotionally and spiritually ready to tackle the topic that represents the next chapter of my life. Everything seems ready to go.

writers-blockBut I just can’t bring myself to actually start. Every morning for the last eight weeks, I’ve vowed, “Today’s the day.” But by late afternoon, with no progress made, that vow becomes, “Tomorrow’s the day” – followed by an evening of more distractions and other business – and the next day the whole cycle repeats.

So far, it’s been a frustrating year.

Initially, I thought my problem was procrastination: even with my task immediately before me, I kept finding excuses to do other things. But as the days trudge on, I am starting to think the problem goes much deeper than that.

In reality, I want to get started. I want to immerse myself into the subject matter, to get into the zone for an entire afternoon. I try to will the words to start flowing through my fingers and onto my blank screen – but with each passing day that the word count doesn’t grow, I get crabbier.

The heart is definitely willing. Yet whenever I open the file on my computer, I feel frozen. By what, I am not certain, but it is enough to block the ideas. I get so frustrated that I want to run away.

Finally I shared my struggle with a friend in my home community. Immediately she said she was familiar with the problem – and for her, paralysis was caused by perfectionism.

That resonated with me.

perfectionist-imagePerfectionism is that god-awful affliction which stifles innovation and strangles creativity. It’s stealthy: we seldom recognize it as the root problem, instead blaming our paralysis on everything else. It’s clever, trapping us with fear and pride: fear because we might fail; pride because we’re too proud to take that risk.

We fear we won’t do it right. We fear our efforts will be rejected, mocked, or brutally criticized by others, and our egos will be irreparably damaged. So we freeze.

In my case, I have subconsciously refused to budge until I can guarantee my magnum opus on the very first try. That is a tall order for even the best writers. No one gets it right the first time. So, because I can’t guarantee perfection, my fingers won’t move.

It is in this perfection-based paralysis that I currently dwell. Yet now that I know why it’s there, exactly how do I overcome it?

In the paralysis itself, I find the answer: Turn the stillness to advantage. Don’t despise the dead air; embrace it.

Dwelling in silence, especially with God, can be one of the most meaningful experiences we can have. The psalmist says: “Be and still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). This imperative conflicts with the very essence of American culture. We push goals. We reward achievements. We exalt  “busy-ness” to the point of burnout.

But the psalmist declares otherwise. Intimacy with God comes not through activity, but through stillness. It is in the silence—even paralyzing silence—that the still small voice often speaks. It is at this point that I must become aware enough to set aside my agenda for God’s. Perhaps he wants me to meditate more deeply on a scripture passage I am reading. Perhaps he has a more significant use of my time than writing the next great tome, or whatever my other goals are. Maybe there is something he wants to say to me.

perphictIn my case, God appears to be homing in on my idol of perfectionism. Instead of typing my first chapter, suddenly I am facing questions far more important in God’s eyes: why is perfectionism so important to me? How can I possibly think I could achieve perfection to begin with? Is this project for my own glory or for God’s?

Whenever I am stuck in paralyzing silence, I can learn to see it not as a failure, but as an opportunity. An opportunity to check my heart, and listen.

When God chooses to unblock the dam, he will—probably in a way I could never imagine. But for now, in the dead silence and writer’s block, I will listen.

The words at the edge of my fingertips will come soon enough.

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Waiting (and waiting) for the thrill

roller_coaster_up_hill2I love rollercoasters. Love them.

I love them for the thrill, the rush, the speed. I love the anticipation, the clack-clack-clack as the cars crawl up that first monstrous hill. I love the loops and flips, the twists and turns, the drool swinging from my seatmate’s wide-open mouth and the bugs slamming into my own. I love the way I vow to eviscerate whoever talked me into this as we crest that first terrifying hill, and then laugh and clap as we roll to a stop at the end.

That’s what I love about rollercoasters.

But apparently, judging by the long lines, everyone else loves them too. And the line is always longest for the best rollercoaster in the place. It provides the longest wait, followed by the greatest thrill of all.

So I also hate rollercoasters. I hate them for the wait, the crawl of the line, the crowd pressed tightly together. I hate standing in the sun, shuffling like cattle through those narrow rails, feeling like I’m about to pass out from heatstroke. I hate waiting an hour for a ride that will last sixty seconds. I hate calculating that if admission to an amusement park costs X dollars and I’m there for just a couple of hours, then I’m wasting half of my money to stand in line for an hour, sweating and scowling, when I could be enjoying something else.

That’s what I hate about rollercoasters.

Practicing patience is a lot like riding rollercoasters: both involve exceptionally long waits, followed by moments of exciting reward. As I wait for my book release, I am trudging painfully slowly toward what I know will be an absolute thrill. However, last month when the release was delayed, my wait got a bit longer. The delay was no one’s fault, and I’m told it’s fairly common in publishing. So I waited.

Now comes word of another delay—shorter than the first. My publisher gives me a choice: we can rush through the final proofing, or take another week or two for quality assurance. Of course, the sniveling twelve-year-old in me, screaming for instant gratification, wants to demand a release now. But the adult in me knows it is wiser to wait, to make sure it is done right, to allow my wonderful publisher to give it their all. So I choose the latter, trying to beat down the spoiled brat inside of me.

And while my wait grows, I must grow with it.

As with the best rollercoasters, the longer the wait, the greater the anticipation and the better the thrill. Soon, I will be on that rollercoaster, screaming and giggling like a little girl. Good things will happen—in time.

After the resurrection, Jesus’ final word to his followers was to wait: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about” (Acts 1:1).

Stay and wait. Something big is coming. Don’t try to force God’s hand. A gift has been promised, and it’s going to be awesome: “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:2).

Great! But when, and can’t it come sooner?

No. Stay in Jerusalem and wait.

How long? Who knows?

Ever notice that when we try to coax timelines out of God, he tends to keep things vague? “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set” (Acts 1:7).

I have noticed that there is a lot of waiting in the Bible. A lot. But I have also noticed that waiting on God always brings something awesome. In the case of the first Christ-followers, it brought tongues of fire and one of the coolest evangelistic crusades ever (Acts 2:1ff). They had to wait just forty days – which, come to think of it, is the total number of days my book release has been delayed! (Coincidence? Sure…totally.)

So now I stand in line, shuffling along inch by inch. But until the ride comes, how can I pass the time? Well, to continue with the rollercoaster metaphor, I am squished in among other people who are also waiting through their time on earth, with their own hopes and dreams. I might as well make the most of it: build relationships with those around me, try to be Jesus to other cranky people, and perhaps help someone else who actually does pass out in line. While I wait, there is stuff to do – stuff far more important than a book release.

Eventually, I will board that coaster, feel the bar slam down across my lap, and prepare for what could be a very wild ride.

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