Forget "Aim High" and "Be All You Can Be." This Army of One has a new motto: Aim Lower. For women today, whether at work or at home, the bar is set at a record high—and I'm determined to limbo under it.
Now, don't get the wrong idea. I think we're highly qualified to perform a dazzling array of tasks. But some of us have packed our schedules, overtaxed our talents, and gotten off track.
We scrapbook, work out, pick up, drop off, volunteer, decorate, renovate, Tweet, cook, clean, organize, reorganize, and hold down jobs. The mothers among us enroll our kids in art classes, sports teams, and language lessons. We buy books dedicated to painting birdhouses, arranging the flowers we grew in our gardens, or decorating cupcakes to resemble any animal, sporting good, or historical figure, living or dead. If it can be done, we do it—and I, for one, am exhausted.
While some women subscribe to worldly models of overachievement, others conform to a wrong-headed version of the Christian superwoman; she's the biblical Martha in overdrive. Sensitive to every need, she's able to whip up gourmet meals with a single phone call. Always available, she swoops in to save any church member or ministry in distress. Infinitely talented, she's always willing to lend a helping hand.
I was one of these women. My typical Sunday: church choir commitments for three worship services, starting at 7:45 a.m. and ending around noon. Small group Bible study (at my house, of course) from 4 to 6. Factor in parenting a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, straightening up the house, preparing beverages, shuttling kids to and from off-site baby-sitting—and you get the idea. Some "day of rest."
My overdoing certainly wasn't limited to Sunday. I regularly baked homemade goodies for school, church, and family events. I filled my schedule with up to six evening meetings a week. I served on countless committees and ran more than my share of fundraisers. And more often than I'd like to admit, I managed to find myself up past 11 p.m. frantically scrubbing the bathtub in case the next night's dinner guests should peek behind the shower curtain.
Although I was doing it all, the Proverbs 31 woman I was not. Proverbs 31:28 says, "Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her." But my children would lift their heads from their pillows and ask, "Do we have to go to church again?" And my husband would stand in the kitchen doorway and drowsily ask, "Are you ever coming up to bed?"
My interpretation of Proverbs 31 was mistaken. In that chapter we have the example of an industrious, intelligent, well-rounded, God-centered woman. She works with her hands, makes real estate deals, gives to those in need, sells her handmade wares, and manages her household. She's so capable that she's intimidating! As a wise older woman once told me, though, the Proverbs 31 woman does it all—but she doesn't do it all in one day. She's the model of genuine poise and grace, not a frantic maniac. She strives for excellence, but to the advantage of her family, not at its expense.
Paul says it perfectly in his prelude to 1 Corinthians 13. Starting at 12:28, he describes the gifts that God has given to believers: to be apostles, some teachers, some healers, some helpers, some administrators. But then he speaks to the overachiever in us all as he writes, "Eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way" (12:31).
Paul goes on to describe love as the key ingredient in the believer's use of her gifts. Without it, he says, even her best efforts amount to little more than a clanging symbol. Our work as women of the kingdom—making disciples, serving the community of believers, and using whatever gifts God has given us—amounts to nothing without love as our primary motivation.
In our frenzied coordination of family parties and preparation of "to die for" dishes for the next church potluck, we must examine ourselves. Some of us make these efforts out of the generosity of our loving spirits. But even these women may be tempted to overachieve out of a desire to impress or control others, a competitive spirit, a legalistic sense of duty, a perfectionist mindset, or a self-aggrandizing pride in their own talents and abilities.
It hasn't been easy for me to kick my high achievement habit. But I've held on to Paul's words: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Romans 12:2). When I embraced the worldly models of performance and achievement, my true colors were hidden in a veil of generosity. But what lay underneath was really selfishness. Now, laying aside those worldly models, I can identify my real motives, evaluate the worth of what I'm doing, and determine whether and when to say "no."
I recently hosted a birthday party for one of my children. It was the perfect opportunity to put my "aim lower" motto into practice. At first, the high achiever in me was after perfection. I wanted the guests to enjoy themselves so much that they'd talk about the event and my abilities for days.
As the party approached, though, I found myself erasing tasks from my to-do list. I cleaned the house, but didn't wash the kitchen floor. I weeded the garden, but didn't put down mulch.
As a result, I was able to enjoy the party, and my guests were able to enjoy my company. I wasn't exhausted from over-preparation or stressed by unimportant details. I wasn't frustrated by the demands of perfectionism. Letting those things go, I was free to focus on conversation, celebration, and the joys of being in community. No doubt, my sensible side hit the bulls-eye. "Aim a little lower," it said, "and you'll be right on target."
Cheryl M. Scheir is a freelance author who lives with her family in Delaware.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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