“Sometimes being good all the time feels really bad,” says Marni, one of the female leads on the popular HBO show Girls. The character is the group’s token beauty with a desirable career path and the “perfect” relationship. But the one who seems to have it all starts cracking despite all her successes. In the show’s exploration into the challenges of modern day twenty-somethings, none of what the world offers seems to be enough.
For me, the story is all too familiar. I had a breakdown this year for no particular reason. I come from a very loving family, have the privilege of going to university and am thriving in a great program. Soon, I’ll be applying to law school with high prospects. So the fact that I was crippled with insomnia, spent days overeating to not eating at all and was overcome with anxiety didn’t make any sense. Everything was going the right way, so why wasn’t I? In short, I was exhausted trying to do it all and success wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.
I’ve always been a performer and perfectionist. Growing up, I became addicted to recognition and affirmations that I was “living up to my potential.” Whether from blatant expectations laid out by my parents, perceived expectations from peers or just an innate desire to do more and be more, I believed my accomplishments essentially defined me. That belief manifested in academic achievements, extra-curriculars, and the building of many close relationships.
Ambition isn’t a bad thing. People can definitely benefit from pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone. But worshipping success is a whole different beast. There is a constant fear of failure, an unsettling need to always be first, and having your emotions dictated by what you do. For the longest time I believed that my achievements demonstrated a control I had over my life, but I was wrong. I remember winning my first trophy. The feeling onstage wasn’t what I expected: excitement or elation. Instead, I felt a deep pressure to keep performing and feared I would never be first again. Not only was I becoming more narcissistic but increasingly insecure in the process.
One of the last places I turned to, God, ended up changing my whole perspective on things. I was reluctant to seek God in the midst of my struggles. For me, it seemed like following God was just another list of to-dos to be accepted by a higher power. But as I took time to research and understand the character of God, I realize each day that who I am doesn’t rest on what I do, but what Jesus Christ has already done for me. I began to see how the standards I kept chasing in life, or nights spent worrying that I wouldn’t “be somebody” in the end were already taken care of. Turns out, failure is inevitable for me, but Christ has already fully succeeded in all my weaknesses. He’s the only one who could die for my imperfection and allow me to be reconciled to God (something I could never earn) through his truly blameless life and sacrifice. Best of all, there is hope in knowing the creator of the universe has succeeded where I continue to fail: I can have dreams and goals without endlessly pursuing validation in them, and know that I am valuable regardless of what I achieve.
The most inevitable criticism to this idea is whether God, having done it all, encourages laziness. If Christ has already paid for my moral failure before God, what do I have to earn anymore? In fact, what’s the point of trying? I continue to struggle with this idea but am encouraged by the promise that a true understanding of God’s sacrifice will breed the opposite. Author Tullian Tchividjian elaborates on this point: “When you don’t have anything to lose, you discover something wonderful. You’re free to take risks without fear or reservation.” The fact that I’ve been fully accepted already and no longer have to measure up on my own is powerful. And it’s a truth that saved my life.