The other day, I stepped out of my office after a Zoom meeting and noticed my daughter was eating a bagel. This observation was innocuous at face value, but defeating when I thought about the cinnamon roll she’d polished off an hour before. And the muffin before that. Preceded by a bowl of cinnamon toast crunch. I pictured the dinner rolls she ate for dinner the night before. Just rolls. And I suddenly couldn’t remember the last time something other than an iteration of bread and sugar passed her lips.
“I’m failing,” drifted through my brain.
I looked around the room at the papers and Legos strewn across the table. My phone beeped and I read a desperate text from my oldest about something she needed me to send to her at college. My eyes swept to my youngest sitting happily watching his cartoon, his schoolwork long abandoned. I looked at my watch and realized I needed to start dinner. The dog whimpered his need to go outside. And right at that very moment, my son came down the stairs asking if I could read over his essay due in a few hours.
“Yep. Definitely I am failing here.” I thought miserably. But then, another thought fought back, “No. I am doing the best I can.”
It’s astonishing how quickly we turn to self criticism in the face of any little infraction and forget all the things we are doing well. In my case, I am steering my kids through all the challenges of elementary, middle and high school, dealing with a pandemic, learning a new job as a professor in this weird hybrid teaching space, working in the ER, starting seminary, supporting my husband in his new job, keeping the house clean-ish and generally trying to be a decent friend to my friends who are all in similar circumstances.
Once I took a beat and stepped away from self criticism, I had to ask myself, “Self? Who cares if she is eating bread. This is the least of your worries.” And if I could sit across from you as you lament wherever you think you are falling short, I would probably tell you the same thing.
The truth is, we all think we are failing, especially in the face of all the images and standards flooding our perception. We intuitively know that the deluge of information coming at us lends itself to unfair comparisons with zero context, but that doesn’t stop anyone from consuming it. Pick any aspect of your life and you can instantly name someone doing it better. The result is perpetually feeling like we don’t measure up.
In a vacuum, we could make a real case for how poorly we are doing. Our diets are not healthy enough, we are on screens too much, we are not active enough, we spend too much, our homes are not clean enough and we probably don’t volunteer like we should. Our bathrooms all need renovating and our wardrobe could use a fresh look. And for the love, we should read more and watch less.
But put any of that into context, and a different story might unfold. Maybe you are doing the best you can with what you have to work with. Maybe you are in a hard season. Maybe your focus is necessarily elsewhere. And maybe you need to give yourself a break.
I am all for self reflection, growth and pursuing excellence. But not without perspective and grace. And sometimes it seems as if the mundane infractions we think are important distract us from pursuing deep and meaningful heart change that does matter.
If you find yourself being hard on yourself, take a beat and ask who says you are failing? By whose standard? If something needs adjusting, adjust. If your kid is eating a sugary prison diet, make her a salad and move on. (My kid won’t touch it, but I’ll give myself a point for trying.) If you are feeling convicted of some real issue, repent and change course. But if you are simply falling into a pattern of self criticism over a non-issue, grab a dinner roll and breathe. Odds are you are doing amazingly well considering your circumstances. And it’s ok to tell yourself so.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8