Bible verses, pop culture, spirituality

What Failing Taught Me About Perfection

The summer is officially winding down. Milwaukee kept having these weird fall-like days at the end of last month. My co-workers kept asking when I was going back to school. There’s a website tracking if it’s Pumpkin Spice Latte season at Starbucks yet.

I can’t deny that another semester of graduate school is upon me, and it’s got me a bit uneasy. Like most driven, hard-working people I know, I struggle with perfectionism. I’ve mentioned the struggle in relationship to patient care and my personal life. I’ve also mentioned how travel nursing dispelled some of the mirage of perfectionism since I had done everything “right” and was miserable.

Yet, I fall into the trap of perfectionism repeatedly, and graduate school was no exception.

I did very well in undergraduate. Not to brag but to paint a picture: I graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin (a renowned public university), won the School of Nursing’s Outstanding Student award, and heck, even graduated from the School of Nursing that accepted only 1 out of every 4-5 applicants. I hold myself to ridiculously high academic standards, and I planned to be just as successful in graduate school.

But then I had to start turning things in.

I had a minor bout of anxiety turning in a quiz about the course syllabus. (First of all, really? A quiz about a syllabus? My classes were all online, so I understand the professors wanted to know we understood it, but really, am I 8?). I even emailed a professor when I got a question wrong on one of those said syllabus quizzes. (To be fair to myself, I was right. The quiz just wanted a numerical, and I typed out the number. She very kindly told me it wasn’t scored and that she was available for help throughout the semester to appease my self-proclaimed nervousness about being in school again.)

Slowly, the semester started. Despite my anxiety about getting any points off, about a month in the dust was settling and I found myself doing as well as I wanted and expected. I could wrap my head around epidemiology and found myself even liking it. I could wrap my head around statistics (which I did not retain nor understand from my introductory class at a technical college) and found myself even getting it. I could wrap my head around evidence-based practice and found myself looking more critically at nursing and medical literature.

But then at the end of February, I got the grade of my first graduate school paper back. I had failed. Not a dramatic fail, but an actual fail. I received an F. I got a 67% on a paper for my evidence-based practice class that detailed how I conducted a literature search on a PICOT question about initiating hospice in the Emergency Department.

(In case you’ve never been a tortured nursing student, a PICOT question is an annoying pneumonic for:

  • Population/ Patient Problem: Who is your patient? (Disease or Health status, age, race, sex)
  • Intervention: What do you plan to do for the patient? (Specific tests, therapies, medications)
  • Comparison: What is the alternative to your plan? (ie. No treatment, different type of treatment, etc.)
  • Outcome: What outcome do you seek? (Less symptoms, no symptoms, full health, etc.)
  • Time:  What is the time frame? (This element is not always included.)

Seriously, of all the things to fail, THIS!? Silliness.)

An F!? That’s not like me! I thought over and over again. I had turned in the paper early. I had followed even the silliest of instructions to a T. I had a decent paper that I didn’t even procrastinate on. How did I fail!?

I have gotten a total of 3 F’s in my life: on a math quiz in 6th grade, on a quiz in my 2nd to last semester of nursing school, and this F on a graduate school paper.

I knew in my mind that a single failure was not life-changing. I still don’t know what I did so poorly on that math quiz, but seeing as I got through the hardest part of calculus adequately, it obviously didn’t matter in the long run (and I still don’t use calculus at my job). I got an amazing job after nursing school and have done fine in my career after that quiz in nursing school. And I knew I was alive, had plenty of other things to turn in for the class, and really, my whole career goal is to be a stay-at-home mom who works two days a week. Clearly this thing was not going to own my life.

But I was shaken up. I was frustrated by the unspecified expectations for the paper and the comment that I had not done my work. (I did! I was just using an old online edition of the book and didn’t know I needed to concentrate on a single page out of 250 pages of reading!)

Thankfully, I was not alone. Plenty of other students had failed, and the professors offered a chance to rewrite. I fixed all the sections, used the exact heading one of the professors had specified, and still managed to fit everything they wanted in two pages. I was confident I was going to do better.

I did. I got a D. I got a 73% on a rewrite of a paper where I knew everything I did wrong (and not everyone did because I had turned mine in early) on a paper concentrating on how I conducted a literature search with a PICOT question. (Seriously, how silly!)

I was so beyond frustrated because I thought I had done everything I was asked, it was not a bad paper, and I failed to see how any of this was going to be relevant to my future job. It didn’t help too that the same professor was rude and told me to “think about” anything I was going to say. (I was so peeved at that line. I cannot even adequately express the frustration here, and I really should not repeat the words I thought and ranted aloud.)

It didn’t help that after the new grade, the mean professor announced they were getting rid of two assignments so we could all concentrate on our final paper. That meant my dumb D paper was going to be worth more of my final grade. Oh, I was really on edge, and my dreams of having a great academic career were being squashed.

Thankfully, a week or so later, mean professor reversed what she had previously said, and we did have the other two group papers to write and provide a buffer for our grade. (But seriously, what is a group paper except torture and easier grading for the professor? It’s awful, especially since one group member could apparently not understand English adequately enough to read any sort of instructions, write in full sentences, or contribute anything of meaning.)

This announcement made me even more anxious because if I was D level writing at best alone, I was surely F level writing with some of the screwballs in my class. It also didn’t help that around this time was I getting over a very large crush that had crushed me, gaining weight because of winter, became another year older, and was otherwise anxious about life.

Then, in the middle of that huge cloud of anxiety (because now I had friend drama going on too), I stumbled upon this gem from Matthew courtesy of the daily readings: “So be perfect as Your Heavenly Father is perfect.”

Historically, I’ve never been a fan of Matthew 5:48 because really, the struggle with perfectionism is real. Dude, Jesus, I struggle enough with human perfectionism. Wanting me to be perfect as You and Your Heavenly Father are is just a horrible expectation.

Thankfully, by that time, I’d discovered BibleHub, a website that allows you to look up the Bible in original Hebrew and Greek (but it’s Protestant, so it’s missing some books and verses of books).

The word Matthew uses that’s translated to “perfect” is τέλειοι or teleioi. If you’re instantly thinking telescope, you’re right. Teleioi is an adjective meaning “mature (consummated) from going through the necessary stages to reach the endgoal, i.e. developed into a consummating completion by fulfilling the necessary process (spiritual journey)” that comes from tel-, a root meaning, “reaching an end.” BibleHub even writes about tel-, “It is well-illustrated with the old pirate’s telescope, unfolding (extending out) one stage at a time to function at full-strength (capacity effectiveness)”

It all of a sudden hit me that Jesus wasn’t excepting nor wanting me to be perfect in the way I thought of perfect. My version of perfection is a pedestal, a level that no one can reach where their body is impeccable, their academic record is flawless, and their personal life is unblemished. But Jesus Himself was battered and bruised, considered stupid by the religious leaders of the day, and had drama in His personal life.

Jesus does not desire a pedestal version of perfection. Instead, He wants me to be on a journey of spiritual maturation. Spiritual maturity in my understanding is becoming acutely aware of one’s weakness, offering it to God, and allowing my faults, failings, and wounds to become a place for His strength, healing, and grace. By His wounds I am healed (Isaiah 53:5), and by His vulnerability, more were ever closer drawn to Him.

Jesus’s version of perfectionism is achievable because it is a journey, a ladder, a stepwise process that allows for falling. All of a sudden, I could have imperfections like cellulite on my butt, F’s in my academic record, and unwanted drama in my life and still be perfect as my Heavenly Father is perfect. I felt a newfound confidence that I could fail my first graduate school paper and still turn out OK.

Finally, I was able to talk to the other professor who had taught the class previously and was a semi-reasonable person. She worked with me to find a new research topic that was much less vague and one that I liked. My new PICOT question focused on grief interventions for women who miscarry in an Emergency Department. I had to do a lot more work for my second paper because I couldn’t carry over anything I had used in the first. I spent almost 2 months holed up in my house with my only breaks going to work because I had 3 major papers to write for this class in addition to everything else I had for my other classes.

When I got 0.5 points off on my 1st group paper (again, what is a group paper!?), I really had to work on my perfectionism anxiety. But it was only 0.5 points. My idea of not failing this class was more likely. My group got full points on our other paper, and I got full points on my final paper.

I especially appreciated the feedback the nice professor of the two gave me: “Yowza! You have shown tremendous growth in your work. Your writing shows clarity, professionalism, and conciseness. Your PICOT elements interweave with each other nicely and include a measurable, feasible “O” – much improved since the first assignment.”

Somehow, after recognizing I desperately needed help, asking for help, and  a lot of hours reading over medical and nursing literature, I got what I had wanted from the beginning. I got an A. Somehow, when all the points came together, I scraped away with a 95.17%, and the cuttoff for an A was a 95%.

Even more, I was able to start my dissertation project over the summer. Thanks to a new research topic on grief interventions for women who miscarry in an Emergency Department, when one of my educators at work was looking for people to join a committee to revamp our miscarriage process, I had enough knowledge of the topic to apply evidence-based practice to the project. I was able to advocate for spiritual care and social work for women with early pregnancy loss. I was able to advocate for shorter wait times or an option for privacy in the waiting room. I was able to create educational materials.  I was able to create a journal page, a documented self-care grief intervention. And I was even able to present all of it with my co-workers at staff meetings last month.

I did not think any of that was possible when I got my grade. I thought I was going to flunk out of graduate school, but instead, I’m excelling more than I ever expected and have a clear research topic that will guide me through the remainder of my studies.

God works in very mysterious but wonderful ways sometimes. And if He’s taught me anything about perfection, it’s this: perfection is a process, not a state. 

Even more, revealing my imperfections to God is a chance for intimacy. As Matthew Kelly discusses in his book The Seven Levels of Intimacy, exposing our woundedness is the 6th level of intimacy (of 7) and can lead to a deeper appreciation and sense of togetherness. Revealing my weakness to God does not make Him think less of me but more, much like it does in our personal relationships. I have never thought less of someone for telling me a weakness of theirs. Instead, I’ve always loved them more because I’ve found them more relatable.

At its core, admitting our weakness and failures is more a matter of hurt pride than anything else. As Fulton Sheen wisely said in The World’s First Love (and I paraphrase because I’m lazy and don’t want to pick up the book to find the exact quote), “Why did this happen to me?” is a question of pride.” Questions of pride need to be meet with statements of humility.

And what is humility?

“…learning to accept disappointments and even defeat as God-sent, learning to persevere and carry on with peace of heart and confidence in God, secure in the knowledge that something worthwhile is being accomplished precisely because God’s will is at work in our life and we are doing our best to accept and follow it.”

– Walter Ciszek, He Leadth Me

So, as another semester of grading and temptations to fall into a perverse sense of perfectionism awaits me, I will cling to the wise words of Sirach:

“Accept whatever befalls you,
when sorrowful, be steadfast,
and in crushing misfortune be patient;
For in fire gold and silver are tested,
and worthy people in the crucible of humiliation.”

Sirach 2:4-5

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