by Pastor Audrey
I’ve known for a long time that there’s no such thing as doing my best. In fact, it’s bad for me to try to do my best. So often we try to encourage one another by saying “just do your best” as a way of acknowledging that perfection is elusive, if not impossible. “Just do your best” is intended as a way of extending grace to one another and embracing the limitations of our humanity. But “just do your best” has a dark side, at least for me.
The best illustration of this is from my childhood. In 1stor 2ndgrade, my classmates and I were told to just do our best on an upcoming spelling test. It was, no doubt, a well-intentioned means of easing our anxiety. I got 100% on the test and received all manner of praise. But instead of feeling proud, accomplished, and satisfied, I felt ashamed. I wanted to hide. I didn’t want anyone to know about my “achievement.” Why? Because I had not done my best. In fact, I hadn’t even studied.
I’ve hesitated about sharing this even now, fearing the point would be missed and seen instead as some clever way of showing off. But allowing this experience to lurk in the shadows over the years has only compounded my sense of shame whenever I’m encouraged to do my best.
Becoming a pastor and having a baby has made everything worse. My very well-ordered life, with set times to pray, exercise, cook, and read seemed to just evaporate. And again, very well-intentioned people whom I love and respect all told me to just do my best, including my spiritual director.
Maybe it’s because he’s a Catholic priest in Three Rivers that I felt safe in “confessing” to him, but when my spiritual director also encouraged me to just do my best, I finally broke. I told him that hearing those words felt completely toxic to me. I told him that no matter how hard I tried – no matter how well I performed or how accomplished I became, I could never do my best. No matter what, I always felt like I could have done better – and it was eating me alive. I needed to find a way to transform those words.
During Lent, the 40 day season of preparation for Easter, many people choose to fast from something to help them get ready for the joy and celebration of Easter. One way to do this is to first decide what it is that you need to “feast on” when Easter comes, what truth of God you need to indulge and delight in. You then “fast from” whatever barriers keep you from living this truth.
With this idea of fasting and feasting in mind, I finally realized how to transform “just do your best.” The answer was a simple two letter change: BE. Being at my best was a world away from doing my best. Being at my best means making very different decisions about how I spend my time and to what things I give my energy. I’m not saying I always make the best decisions now that I’ve had this epiphany. I’ve spent my life achieving and accomplishing; transformation doesn’t happen overnight.
But now, whenever I heard the words, “just do your best,” my insides don’t melt into a puddle of shame. I just transform the words and ask myself what, in this moment, I need to be at my best.