To my soul,
I see how you make your way. Throughout the fields of life searching. Seeking success that brings satisfaction. Pursuing perfection that’s supposed to bring peace. Aiming to achieve your value and worth.
But contentment and peace do not define you. Instead you’ve become a reed bruised, about to be broken by fear. A wick smoldering, about to be snuffed out by anxiety. An archer downcast, about to despair from looking for a mark that yields soulful rest.
Do you remember our younger days, my soul, when we first explored these fields? Free to run, jump, twirl. Mud pies and rope swings. There was such pleasure in simply being — whether in the creek, up a tree, or knee deep in leaves — with Yahweh.
Joy in coloring outside the lines.
Happiness in the haphazard.
Sweet surprise in following our whims.
When did we let that slip out of our hand? Like it wasn’t the most precious thing. When did being present not become good enough and achieving perfection become our sole aim? A soul resting morphing into a soul straining. Why, tender heart, did we believe the lie that the love of Yahweh was not enough, but what really mattered was what we accomplished?
There you stood, in your younger years, looking for various targets in the fields. At what could you aim? Under your own strength, what could you achieve? Standing at a distance, certain trees looked favorable. Responsible choices, in fact. Pleasing and good, they appeared as worthy goals for the strength of your bow and arrow.
From each tree hung a bull’s eye. Its concentric circles convincing you of its validity. Secured to the trees’ trunks they never were. Each one dangling from a thin rope that swayed and bounced with the slightest of breeze. The targets never steadied themselves for an audience of one, but rather swung and spun without fidelity.
And yet project after project, disappointment after empty disappointment, even now you lean over your quiver in the field and search for just the right arrow for just the right target. You obsess over the length and thickness of the shaft. Will others consider it good enough? Will others thus consider you good enough?
You fine tune the arrow’s tip. Is it at its sharpest? You ask this question over and over, but never ask if sharpest sharp is really, truly what’s needed.
You anxiously consider each feather for the tail. Is the shape right? Is the weight right? But you do not realize that the lie that says “finish fast, finish first, or don’t bother to finish at all” is the heaviest weight in the tail.
Yahweh comes with cool water, warm bread, and an alternative bull’s eye for your heart; even so, you continue to grind your tip away. The need to produce more and more, better and better, bleeds your heart empty.
A storm is brewing on the horizon. It’s been approaching for quite some time. The light in the field is low now, as is the light in your soul. There will be dark days ahead. The winds of paralyzing anxiety are kicking up. The rains of unbreathable depression moving in.
And yet there you stand. Eyes weary. Hands calloused. Stomach sour. Your determination is commendable, but now you’re becoming willfully stubborn. With your bow, you draw back the arrow of your work yet again and begin to align it with the target.
The bull’s eye baits you with obtainable perfection. Sink your efforts in the center circle and validation is promised. All the other archers will surely have to notice your soul-depleting strain and applaud your skills, if only your aim is true.
Your muscles strain and beg you to release the bow, yet you continue to hold it taunt. There is a faint word in the wind. A note carried on the air currents. What is it we’re supposed to hear? Something about the target. Is it not the right one?
It does not matter now. It cannot matter now for the arrow is already set. The bow stretched. The target sways hypnotically.
And so you let the arrow fly, sailing through the air, and you turning away before it strikes the rotten wood.
O my soul, not a single attempt has delivered to you deep, restful contentment. Your quiver of arrows grows heavier, not lighter after each endeavor. And the targets lie in mildewy piles around you.
When you told me the bull’s eyes sparkled in the sunlight because they were made of long-lasting material, you lied to both of us. The applause of others is never long-lasting.
When you told me the target was beautiful because if its reflection — a reflection of our value, you said — you ignored the truth. Your dismissal of mercy, grace, and tenderness in pursuit of this target without fault was never beautiful. The reflection was a lie.
When you assumed a part of our identity could be found hanging from the tree of self-pursued perfection, you supplanted the eternal with the temporary. When the time comes when we can no longer achieve, where will we aim? What will be our worth then? All trees fall down eventually.
Here is the truth we were unable to see: These targets sparkle and reflect not because they are beautiful, perfect, and true, but because they are wet and shiny with lies. Moisture has seeped in bringing with it decay. Rotting the wood. They are moldy and uphold nothing of value.
O my soul, I lament over our belief in the false promises and slick facades. We are older now, but are we wise enough to see all the dead fall in the fields? Discerning enough to see the needle-like thorns on the branches? How could we have repeatedly overlooked the decay and deadly spikes, thinking they’ll pierce the souls of others, but not cut us?
O my soul, I grieve the time lost believing that if we put in enough effort, then surely the spinning, swaying targets will have to steady themselves in respect for our arrows. But since when have leaves shown loyalty, or wood proven worthy of any soul’s aim?
What is the truth? It is this: When we aim to achieve, our arrogance will only lead to anxiety.
When our pursuit is perfection, our efforts will only lead to rotten, pulpy idols.
When we value the applause of others, we will only look for validation of what we do and ignore validation of who we are or the type of person we are becoming.
But there is hope for the downcast and weary, O soul. There is another target in the field. We can direct our efforts to something rich in beauty.
This goal offers us peace without exhausting pursuit and acceptance without the strain. There is truth here, not lies; pure beauty, not rotten cores.
Turn and look, the target to treasure is over here…..
(…part II coming soon…)
Post Script: For those of us who wrestle with the strive to achieve perfection, the “cure” isn’t to lower our standards. Telling one’s self to only do “B” level work or only give 80% effort is, I imagine, a bit like telling an alcoholic to drink 80% less. It’s completely nonsensical. What does “B” level work even look like? Three typos or four? One bathroom sink cleaned but not the other? Only 80% of the columns of numbers add up correctly? I have no idea how to “drink” less.
Furthermore, it is part of my God-given nature to strive toward the achievement of something… and that something is really, really well done. The problem is that I’ve been striving toward the achievement of something that is punishingly addictive and at the same time entirely unsustainable. I’ve come to believe I’ve been handing out grades on the entirely wrong thing. I need to shift my striving toward something else — something less fleeting and far more beautiful. This letter flows out of that shifting in my heart.