Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The myth of having it all together

I admit it, I like having all of my ducks in a row. I like it when things are more or less neat and tidy, whether we're talking about the house or life in general. I remember someone saying to me once that outer order was an indicator of inner order. And so I must confess that for a long time, I really bought into that. Such a belief would manifest itself--and still does occasionally--in the need to straighten up my office, say, before I begin working in it. And I don't just mean the desk I'm going to work at; I mean the whole office. The same happens at home. There are moments when there's lots of housework to do and until it's done, I find it hard to feel comfortable in my own home. Now, of course, I would argue that this is ok and reasonable to some extent. If I'm going to work at my desk, I should clear it off first; and if I want to read in a chair at home, I can't do so if a bunch of my daughter's toys are piled on it. Not many of us prefer to live and work in squalor! Not that our house is ever rife with squalor, but you get my meaning. And, unsurprisingly, this need for outer order really rears its ugly head when we know we have houseguests or visitors coming--there's that mad impulse to get everything done in time, to sweep up all the dust bunnies, rid the rooms of clutter, and, for goodness sake, make sure the bathroom is shiny and bright! It often, for us, takes the form of a whirlwind of cleaning the night before. There are many of us who suffer from such chaos or "can't-have-anybody-over-syndrome." I'm sure we all know what that's like.

And again, I'm not saying that keeping our house is a bad thing. Surely not. Heck, there's almost nothing I enjoy more than a house that has recently been cleaned and tidied! We recently had some Spring-cleaning days here at our church, and it felt very good to do here what most of do at home: get rid of clutter, junk, dust, and hopefully make things feel a little more welcoming, both for ourselves and also for anyone else who happens to drop by. Doing all this is a sign of hospitality.

But . . .

I occasionally wonder if the impulse to impose this sort of outer order on our lives and circumstances is a form of perfectionism borne of the often unexpressed feeling that we have to have it all together. And that we ought to be ashamed if we don't have it all together. Because we all know that the reason we want to have everything clean and in its rightful place when visitors come is that we're worried they'll think less of us if we don't. And along with this worry we assume that everyone else must have it all together. "No one else lets this much dust gather under their end-tables, do they? Of course not!"

But we don't have it altogether; none of us does. That's true in all of life's facets, whether family life, marriage, work, ministry or whatever. We are forever missing the mark. The funny thing, though, is that we guilt-trip ourselves because we think we should have it all together. We lay an extra burden on ourselves (and sometimes those around us, mostly those whom we love and live with). When engaged couples are going through pre-marital counseling, an important thing for them to talk about is the gap between expectations versus reality. And this is important for all of us, married or not. We are constantly experiencing the gap that exists between expectations and reality, because so often our expectations are not realistic. So we don't have it all together. And this is true, by the way, even if you're able to maintain outer order and look as though you have it all together. You're just hiding behind appearances that much more effectively. A clean house is no indicator of having it all together on the inside.

In Genesis 1, God creates order out of chaos. Out of the soupy nothingness of the primordial mess of pre-creation, God brings shape and form into being. Only God has it all together; and only God can bring it all together. This is true of the wide expanse of all the cosmos, from every star and nebula to every insect and microbe, and it's also true of us. The entire narrative of salvation, given to us in Scripture, is a testimony that only God can take the mess and chaos of our lives and relationships, places of work and worship, and make them into what they should be. In every single instance where we have attempted to go it on our own and impose order on the world we have gone off the rails badly. Look at Eden. And look at Babel. Take a close look at the history of Israel. Clearly we don't do well when we try and run our own lives. Our attempts at ordering the chaos more often than not results in more chaos; we are forever mucking things up and causing trouble. And so, God. Only he can bring order out of chaos. Only he can knit the various threads of our lives into a meaningful and redemptive pattern. Only he can untangle the knots we have made of ourselves and our circumstances.

But we persist. We continue to feel as though we have to have it all together. We're afraid that someone may, so to speak, catch us with our pants down, unprepared and completely in disarray. The impulse to clean completely before company arrives is almost a sign of inner disorder, the fact that we think we have to be the ones to create meaning and give our lives their form. And we think that others will think poorly of us because our lives don't give the appearance of order. We worry that our outer disorder will be taken as a sign of inner disorder. But maybe the opposite is true. Letting that dirty laundry fester in the basement (nice image, eh?) or allowing the dirty dishes to sit in the sink for another hour or two might be the thing to do if it means taking the time to laugh and play with my daughter or spend an evening with my wife. Do I live that way, however? Of course not. At least not always. I'm just as obsessed with outer order as anyone. But I hope that I am gradually learning to recover from this.

And how do we recover? We do so by praying the words of Genesis, and indeed the whole of Scripture, into our lives, by asking God to free us from the very impulse to do that which only he can accomplish. We need to stop playing at God and let God be God. Salvation includes more than our heavenly reward; salvation is also about the here and now, about how we allow our lives to be ordered by God. It means that the next time you find yourself obsessing over housework, remember that dusty floors and dirty laundry say almost nothing about the sort of order that really matters. And it means remembering, therefore, that only God can create the order that truly does matter. As it says in Genesis, "And God said . . . And it was so."

1 comment:

Janis said...

Derek, everything you write touches me deeply - you're awesome! I'm glad you make the time to write in your blog and share your heart - it's a real blessing.