27 Jan You can’t do enough. (And that’s okay!)
Last week, I broke my brand new car. Well, part of it, anyway.
I’m not really a “new car guy.” It’s been the better part of two decades since the last time I purchased a new vehicle. So, when I invested in a new car this year, I promised myself I’d take excellent care of it.
I’ve been choosing my parking spots intentionally – no tight spaces, no messy trees, no chance of grocery cart dings or superfluous bird activity. I’ve strategically avoided coffee spills. I’ve checked my shoes for mud before sliding into the driver’s seat. I’ve been meticulously careful with this shiny new thing.
But, then last week, on my way into our church parking lot, I glanced to my right and noticed that someone had (once again!) stolen one of the rainbow, brown and black flags from the front of our church. My car kept rolling. But my head remained riveted on the spot where the flag should have been. The farther my car crept along, the more I craned my neck around to the right to confirm if the flag was truly gone. Sure enough, it was. And, for a fleeting moment, all I could hear was the buzz of my befuddled and irritated thoughts. That is, until I heard another sound. A horrible sound.
A crunch. A bad crunch. A full-body-cringe, metal-on-concrete kind of crunch. In my distraction, I’d driven right into one of our high curbs. A mercilessly high curb that scratched and gouged the front right wheel and tire of my Brand. New. Car.
The one I’d been trying so hard… to keep perfect.
Faster than even my head had spun to seek the missing flag, my thoughts now swiveled into blame and shame. “How could I be so stupid? Why did I look away for so long? THIS is why we can’t have nice things! I should have been more careful!” (And other less-than-nurturing words to that effect.) I was so caught up in my self-chastising that it did not even occur to me to ask a far more logical question: “Had anyone WITNESSED my absurd display of high-performance driving?”
“I didn’t do enough.”
It’s amazing, isn’t it, how quickly shame can take us from a relatively harmless bump into the curb to questioning the core definitions of our value, our competency, and our worth? If only I’d done this and not that. If only I’d made more of an effort. We take our struggles and failures and trace them backward with critical eyes, auditing for the moments we could have changed courses, tried harder, been better, been more. It’s as illogical as it is unfair and unproductive. But that doesn’t stop us, does it? It sure didn’t stop me.
The thing is, most of us, secretly or not so secretly, think we’re supposed to be perfect and powerful enough to prevent the bad stuff. We walk around with the deep, perhaps unspoken, often not even fully conscious belief that, maybe, if we are good enough, and responsible enough, and thoughtful and careful and selfless and diligent enough, then we can keep the world… from breaking.
But, here’s the truth: we could never do enough to keep the world from breaking… because the world is already broken.
Doing our best can’t make a broken world perfect. We can’t “responsible” our way out of scratched rims or gouged tires. Nor can we will the people we love out of getting sick, or feeling pain. As much as we wish we could, we can’t control decisions other people make about whether they’re going to stop at that stop sign, or whether they’re going to get vaccinated, or whether they’ll steal Pride flags off church lawns.
At best, control’s an illusion. How often life reminds us that our best efforts can’t control very much at all.
We’re still in the throes of a pandemic that most of us thought would be over by now. We have been doing everything we can to protect everyone we know, for a long time, and we’re tired. Many of us just feel done. But we also feel worried, even scared. What if we make a mistake, and someone’s sickness is our fault? What if our decisions damage our kids or our financial futures or our relationships? What if we loosen our grip for a second, and it all falls apart? And the pandemic is but a macro example of a dynamic that often afflicts us in innumerable other situations.
Maybe it’s time to offer ourselves a little grace.
“Sounds good, Jeff, but…how exactly do we do that?“
I think we start by reminding ourselves, as often as we need to, that the world is already broken. No matter how cautious and careful we are, we aren’t in charge of everything. Like Jesus tells us in Matthew, “It rains on the just and the unjust.” We can’t stop things from breaking, from ending, from dying. It’s already broken.
“Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything, and that I open myself to being helped by something, some force, some friends, some something.” — Anne Lamott
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating that we surrender personal responsibility. We can, and SHOULD, be responsible, thoughtful humans. We can, and SHOULD, all check our shoes before getting in the car. (Well, at least in my car!) But when things inevitably break and go wrong, and when our sense of responsibility starts to spiral into the guilt and shame of “It’s my fault for not doing enough”, then we can, and SHOULD, remember:
It’s already broken.
At first, it might sound a little pessimistic. But when we live knowing it’s already broken, we get the gift of appreciation. We hold our loved ones closer, knowing our time with them comes with a limit. We realize the significance of each day, knowing tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. Instead of white knuckling our way through every moment trying to stop the bad from coming, we have space to enjoy the good we have now.
We can offer ourselves… some grace.
We can forgive ourselves… for our mistakes.
We can stop blaming ourselves… for being human.
We can also remember, whatever happens, we aren’t alone. The Bible is full of reminders that God isn’t the abandoning sort. In Hebrews: “After all, God has said, I will never leave you or abandon you.” In Deuteronomy: “Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; God will never leave you nor forsake you.” In Matthew: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
God isn’t in the business of fixing everything. No matter how hard I pray, God probably isn’t going to buff out my curb-clawed wheel or reconstitute my divoted sidewall. But God does promise to be with us. When bad things happen. When we run right into the ways the world is already broken. When we break it, ourselves. When we mess up. When we can’t do enough. And God promises to use both life’s brokenness and our brokenness as a portal for the very grace that saves us.
Always. No matter what.
To the very end of the age.
I, for one, am very grateful for that.
(I’m also grateful you decided not to eat that crumbly, peanut-butter granola bar while in my passenger seat. But, perhaps I’ll leave that for another blog post.)
The Rev. Jeff Braun is the Senior Pastor of Winnetka Congregational Church, a progressive, LGBTQ-inclusive, justice-oriented and family-friendly church on the north side of Chicago. His calling is to share God’s word of love as spoken through Jesus, to make sure that everyone knows they have a seat at the table and to help us all recognize our oneness in God and with all God’s children.