Be Perfect as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect: Charity’s Story
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Charity” is a pseudonym.
I’ve been following HA from the beginning. I knew from the first moment I saw the Facebook page that I would write my story, even though I do not think there is anything surprising about my life. I was raised in a conservative Christian home, was homeschooled through graduation, and in graduate school dropped Christianity for feminism. That transition, while difficult, felt natural for me. Feminism gave me a language for the discrepancies I could see and feel, but could not name. To this day my parents are dismayed and my brother is bemused about my ideological transformation.
I don’t know what parts of my life are important to tell, which parts are most salient. I just know that along the way I learned to hate myself. Because even though I know that I am smart and beautiful, I also know that I should be better. The only yardstick I have is absolute perfection for whatever it is that is on my plate in the moment. And if I can’t be perfect, then I need to just complete whatever the project is and move on to something else. There is so little joy in that way of living. There is no self-acceptance. Nothing can just be what it is in the moment; the striving is both constant and tortuous. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain.
I was raised to be a good Christian girl who did the best she could. It just so happens that, aside from math, I’m good at most things I have tried. All of my life I’ve been told that everything I touch turns to gold. There is a shit-ton of pressure in that statement and that pressure is the center of my story.
Until college, my social circle consisted mostly of other homeschoolers and families from church. Basically my life was “all Jesus all the time.” I learned from a very early age that both God and Jesus were perfect and that perfection was the goal. Of course, my parents would deny that they ever taught me that explicitly, because of course perfection is impossible. But try telling that to a child who grows up hearing about how the perfect love of God covers all her sins! I am a typical first-born, Type-A overachiever. Combine that with the teaching that God made it possible for me to be perfect through the perfection of Christ and his sacrifice on the cross, and BOOM. I am a walking shitfest of a mess.
As a teenager I tried to do everything right. I signed the True Love Waits pledge card, and took it one step further: no kissing until marriage. I taught abstinence-only sex education to 7th graders at a local Catholic school. And as if that wasn’t enough, I happily boarded the Joshua Harris I Kissed Dating Goodbye train. I am still baffled as to how I believed that I could do so much talking about sexsexsex, whether it was blatant or veiled, and not want to even think about doing it! I was encouraged and applauded by every adult I met for my amazing character, commitment, and chastity. But what I remember most was feeling shame about every inch of my body and what it wanted, how good it felt when I touched myself, and the simple desire of wanting a boy to like me. How could I be perfect if I wanted to have sex?
Growing up I lacked imperfect role models…people who were successful, but weren’t afraid to genuinely admit their imperfection.
For the next decade, that was my frame of mind. Any little imperfection ate away at my self-worth. I really bought into Matthew whatever-whatever, ‘be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.’ Instead of seeing my life as an opportunity to nourish my soul through learning what my mind and body could accomplish, every endeavor became yet another way to measure my failure. How can I be the perfect student if I don’t have a 4.0 (finally got it on my third degree!)? How can I be the perfect yoga instructor if I can’t touch my toes? How can I be the perfect partner if what I want is to leave the man I married? How can I be perfect if one of the few places I find both joy and solace is in a bottle of rum? Growing up in the Christian homeschooling subculture taught to view life from the negative. I want to believe this was unintentional. My flair for the dramatic aside, my biggest regret is that I wasn’t taught to enjoy and love my body or my life. I was taught that both my body and my life were things to be disciplined, controlled, and held in check.
I bought into the belief that not being perfect meant I was a failure.
A different truth is that if I ever achieved perfection, there would be nothing left for which to live.
I took a three-day break after writing that last sentence. I needed time to process. Yesterday morning I was having breakfast with a friend of mine and I told him about this essay. He asked me what my story had to do with being homeschooled, since it sounded to him like a story about being raised super-Christian. Good question. My answer? Being homeschooled meant that I only ever came in contact with other people of the same persuasion, religious/belief system, hell!, life system, as the one in which I was living. Being homeschooled for me was being surrounded by people who were also supposed to be perfect because we were all ‘covered by the blood of Jesus.’ I didn’t know that imperfection was an option. I didn’t know that I could make choices outside of the Bible and still be a good person, that I would still like myself, that people would still like me, that God would still like me. Not that I really believe in God anymore, but that’s for a different essay. It wasn’t until graduate school that I finally came out of my shell—out of my parents house—and realized that there was an entire world in which my identity didn’t hinge on if I was a virgin or read my Bible or went to church or dressed modestly or all the other things my childhood and adolescence was hyper-focused on—because of course, for a woman, those things equal perfection.
Hang on. I’ll be back in another couple of days.
After rereading and thinking and editing, I’ve decided that this is not something I want to come back to. This isn’t really the story I want to tell. So let me start again.
I was homeschooled. I was sheltered. I was raised in a very conservative, Christian home. But I got out. I don’t have any major regrets from high school; I am lucky. I have worked exceptionally hard to get to know myself, to be honest with the people in my life, and to make choices that are good for me. Being homeschooled taught me to hold myself accountable and that at the end of the day, the only person who was responsible for what was or was not accomplished was me. My parents taught me an amazing work ethic that I couldn’t shake even if I tried. Sure, that has led to me being a perfectionist workaholic who sucks at relaxing, but the yoga and rum are helping with that.
My parents and I no longer talk politics or religion, but I know that they love me and have my back. Being homeschooled meant that I had a lot to overcome in terms of finding a footing in the world outside of my parents house; I think it took me a lot longer than average to figure out who I wanted to be because the people I came in contact with were so homogenous—I didn’t have options to pick from until I was in my 20s. But, being homeschooled also taught me to be content with myself because quite often I was left alone to my own devices.
So, all that to say being homeschooled was definitely a curse; in that sheltered, Christian environment I learned some pretty shitty ways of thinking about myself. But being homeschooled also taught me how to look out for myself. Perhaps that part of the equation paved the way for me to become the feminist I am today? My mother would die if she read that. But even so, without both those pieces of the puzzle, I doubt I’d be writing this today.
Feminist philosopher Margaret Urban Walker writes that,
In any case, I think that feminist thinkers are entitled to the excitement and intellectual challenge of forging and intensively testing visionary paradigms, of inaugurating their own discursive communities as sites of solidarity and creative communication in their own terms, and of self-consciously exploring confrontational rhetorics as some instruments, among others, for initiating wholesale intellectual change in their favor. (“Further Notes” 154)
Writing this piece has been a process of “feminist thinking” for me; becoming a part of the HA community has forced me to (re)consider so much about myself. I am grateful for the opportunity to add my voice in solidarity.