I am what I’d call a recovering perfectionist. Sometimes I fall off the wagon, but in general I am so much better than I used to be! I used to see things very neatly – black or white, right or wrong – and I was pretty stingy with grace. But years of good times, hard times, friendships, relationships, parenting, working with families in crisis – in other words, everyday life – have taught me lesson after lesson about people and God and grace and forgiveness and the ways that life is anything but perfect – but is instead messily beautiful.
Still, the tendency to “fix” things is strong, and I have to remind myself that not everything can or should be fixed… some things just are. And that’s ok. But it doesn’t mean it’s always easy to accept people and situations that aren’t the way I think they should be. When someone lets me down, or my children do things that (shock!) are different than the way I would have done them, I have to remind myself that just because something isn’t my definition of perfect doesn’t mean it’s not the way it’s meant to be.
Last summer I listened to this amazing podcast on NPR about the treatment of mentally ill patients in a small town in Belgium (“The Problem With the Solution”). Beginning hundreds of years ago, non-violent, mentally ill patients were sent to live with families in the town of Geel as boarders – they joined households as guests and were embraced “just as they were” by the people of the town. (The arrangement is sort of similar to our foster care system.) There was acceptance of what the townspeople simply called “mental differences” and the program was a success throughout the 20th century.
One thing that stuck with me from hearing the story is that the mentally ill patients did so much better living with strangers than with their own families. As the mother of one of the patients described it, she and her husband were always looking for ways to “fix” their son – when what he needed was someone to embrace and accept him the way he was.
Love and acceptance were everywhere in this small Belgian town. The strangers were better healers, because they didn’t care if their boarder “got better.” They just accepted them the way they were. Bittersweet, but true. Sometimes, in our attempts to “help” someone we love be “better” or “happier” what we communicate to them, whether we mean to or not, is that we want them to be different.
A few months ago my youngest daughter was diagnosed with scoliosis. She is the sports-loving one, the one who is super active and whose goal is to be 6 feet tall so she can play volleyball in college. But there we were, staring at an x-ray that showed a very pronounced curve to her spine. She was distressed (but also a little smug – “I knew there was a reason I’m not as tall as I thought I’d be.“). So we were referred to a pediatric specialist for a follow up and just this week we had our appointment.
During the 2 hour drive, I prepared Catie for what might happen. I knew her curve wasn’t anywhere near severe enough for surgery, but I told her about the possibility of wearing a brace, and how it would work. We talked about how sometimes we go through hard seasons in life, and it might be a struggle, but she could do it. And in the end, her back would be fixed! We talked about how God doesn’t promise to make things easy, he just promises to be with us when it’s hard.
We had our appointment, got more x-rays and met with the doctors.
The recommendation? Leave it as it is. Since Catie’s growth is nearly complete, and she is so active, they believe the curve won’t affect her life or activities. They will monitor it, but it shouldn’t get worse, so we are leaving it as is.
The reasonable part of me was nodding with everything the doctors said. Yes, this makes sense, yes, I understand. But the mother and fixer in me was looking at the x-rays and thinking, but this is not straight! This is not how it should be! This should be fixed. You’re just going to leave it crooked?
And again, here was that nudge, that reminder again: not everything can be or has to be fixed. Sometimes things aren’t perfect. Sometimes it’s ok to live with a little bit crooked.
We drove home with a happy girl – no brace means no restrictions, which means no interference with winter volleyball. She may never be 6 feet tall, but she’s going to do the best she can with the 5’6” she’s been given.
It’s a lesson I have to learn over and over again: I don’t always get what I think I want – the fix, the fairy tale, the perfect scenario, children or family or friends or a spouse who do everything just the way I think they should. But I have to trust that just because it’s not perfect doesn’t mean it’s not just as it should be.
Some things you can’t fix – you just work around them. You accept them. Life is messy and beautiful, ordinary and extraordinary. And sometimes it’s slightly crooked.