Good, perfect, holy, sweet, innocent, beautiful, kind, pure – there are so many words that described who I wanted to be ever since childhood. These were goals to achieve, standards impossible to meet, reminders to keep my behavior appropriate, and chains that constricted my life.
Stories of the saints partially influenced this. One story that I read about St. Rose of Lima told of her love of every living thing. She promised the insects that she would never kill them. In return, no bug bit, stung, or bothered her. So many times, I tried to do this and was heartbroken when mosquitoes continued to leave nasty welts on my skin. No matter how hard I tried, my effort to be perfect failed.
The Bible too calls us to a high standard. Matthew 5:48 states that Jesus said, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That is quite the commandment to live up to.
Certainly the Bible and stories of saints are important to listen to and deeply respect. We hold the Bible as the inspired word of God. Yet, we need to read it in the context of Jesus’ culture and era. The saints are amazing men and women who served the Lord in beautiful ways. That might not mean that every word written about them is helpful, however, especially to a young child who takes everything literally.
Even these holy people made mistakes in their lives, a fact which is sometimes forgotten in tales about them. Likewise, authors may elaborate on a tale or edit elements to make the story sound more interesting. Thus, sometimes Scripture and saint stories are taken out of context or taken to an unhealthy extreme.
If I could sum up my life purpose, it would probably be this sentence: “Just be good.” That is how I lived for years, yearning to be better but always falling short.
Others noticed this drive and complimented me. “You are such an angel, saint, perfect person,” my kind friends and encouraging adults would praise. However, the truth about how others saw me was heard in the sneers and confusion of most peers. “Do you live in a cave? Are you serious right now? You should be a nun! Have you seriously never done that? How old are you?”
The harder I tried to be good and perfect, the more I felt the weight of my flaws. When others complimented me, this guilt haunted me even more. Now I was a fake and a liar as well as a bad girl. However, when no one noticed my striving to be kind and sweet all of the time, I felt drained and worthless. Nothing could bring real joy because I hated the essence of who I was.
As long as I was not good, I was terrible, disgusting, and hateful. This contributed to self-harm, restriction, over-eating, deep depression, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety. Traumatic events also began tormenting me and served as reminders of how I failed to be perfect.
In my brain, it is difficult to not think about things as black or white. Either I am sick or healthy, happy or sad, alone or surrounded by people, good or bad. Realizing that things are on a scale instead of completely one way or the other is a challenge.
Yet that is how people are. No one is fully evil or perfect, at least while we remain on earth. We can choose to do terrible things or wonderful actions more of the time, but we all make mistakes and beautiful creations. We fail and we succeed.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses this. “All are called to holiness,” according to 2013, but the text continues on in 2015 to add that “there is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle.” Earlier, when addressing grace in 2002, the argument is made that God grants us a wonderful gift that we all deeply desire: “God immediately touches and directly moves the heart of man. He has placed in man a longing for truth and goodness that only he can satisfy.”
Thus, my longing to do good and be holy comes from the longing God put into the hearts of all. However, guilt and anxiety corrupted this desire. Instead of aiming toward becoming the woman of faith the Lord intended me to be, I was searching to be spotless in appearance to others and Him, in hopes that no one would notice my pains and vices.
This is a struggle I have seen in many Catholics (sometimes labeled under good old “Catholic guilt”). We put more pressure on ourselves than God intends. Even worse, our reliance is on our own strength instead of that from the Holy Spirit. CatholicCulture.org states this need for the Lord in a beautiful way:
“It is a natural human instinct to strive for perfection; we are all impatient with our weaknesses and limitations. The deepest form of happiness derives from the successful integration of our faculties and our own ability to direct them in a unified way toward our proper ends. . .Catholicism too recognizes this claim, further recognizing that man is a composite being of body and soul who finds himself without complete integrity owing to sin, and who finds a solution in Divine grace which will repair and perfect his nature.”
Striving to be the best person possible physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally is a very wise thing. However, forcing yourself to be “good” often leads to perfectionism and hopelessness. I am good enough with my faith and in who I am. Yes, I need to make wise decisions, but that does not mean I should force myself to be a perfect, innocent baby.
Being human means we are beautiful disasters and bewildering successes. That is what I want to focus on being.