The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

Our family of four was shopping the other day (and by shopping, I mean my husband […]

good moms 2Our family of four was shopping the other day (and by shopping, I mean my husband was pushing a cart stuffed with two whining kids while I looked for an escape hatch) when we dead-ended into one of those homespun signs that make me cringe a little. I read the words, looked at my husband, and rolled my eyes forcefully enough that I’m still waiting to hear back from the ophthalmologist. “GOD,” I hissed in a combination of prayer, exasperation, and self-righteousness. “So now it’s the non-cleaners’ turn to define what’s good?”

Full disclosure: I am one of the cleaners. To the point of obsession, which to me looks like Costco packages of Swiffer wet packs, lemon-scented countertop spray on back order, and handheld-vacuum-related carpal tunnel syndrome. And I’ve been through enough counseling and self-directed introspection (I believe the professionals refer to this as navel-gazing) to know that my desire for a well-kept home often crosses the line between “taking care of my family” and “expression of my own sinfulness and need for control”: my floorboards may sparkle, but you can look beneath them for the secrets I have hid. This awareness should send me searching after grace, AKA the freedom to clean without fear, Swiffer serenely as I sing praise songs, and–perhaps most importantly–abandon judgment of those who don’t. Which sometimes happens, but mostly…not? What’s more typical is me angrily pushing a mop handle while inwardly nourishing the consolation prize of being a better person than the woman with a dirty oven.

Here’s the secret: none of us are doing it right. And by it, I mean anything. 

There’s liberation to be found in embracing preferences and claiming the personalities that suit us for them. There’s laughter to be had in posting pictures of our messes. There’s poignancy to be felt in poetry that reminds us life is more than sparkling countertops and lucrative careers. But the current of sin runs underneath and feeds it all, because the truth is that making our case–whether it’s through a passive-aggressive comment or an innocuous tap of the “Share” button–makes us feel empowered in these microcosmic mixtures of Who We Are Right Now. And none of us are ultimately meant to stay in our kitchens, dirty or clean.

While it’s freeing to be real, even our authenticity can be a self-justification ploy, an identity upon which we prop ourselves to avoid dealing with what’s even real-er: the shame over not doing enough, reflected by the piles of laundry; the fear of losing control and falling apart, evidenced by the crumb-less floors. We’re always looking to prove ourselves, peering beneath the dirt and into the sparkle for legitimacy. Sin can hide in dirty and clean flatware. Sing it again with me: and in my best behavior, I am really just like him…

youthsYes, even our benevolence is pathological. On my way into Target the other day, a group of teenagers were encamped near the entrance, swamping it more than my other worst fear–a Salvation Army bell-ringer–ever could in his singularity. I focused on my suddenly fascinating offspring, whom I had been actively ignoring for all our sakes seconds earlier. But I was approached nonetheless and asked to support a high school band. An earnest young man held out a folder of information, which I bypassed reading by handing over some cash. Immediately one of his colleagues whipped her head around, and I sensed the awareness of blood in the water. Here I had been, a suburban mom hoping that I might single-handedly bridge Atlanta’s racial divide by being The White Lady Who Gave Money, and I was being asked to repeat my good deed?! I lied that I was out of cash and hustled my pair inside the waiting A/C–five dollars lighter and with a discomfiting realization to ponder: even my good deeds are drenched in sin.

Anne Lamott, my spirit animal, writes about a trip she took to visit a friend who was recovering in a halfway house. “Maybe, subconsciously,” she considers, “it was to make myself feel holy and purposeful, and to buoy myself up… The kernel, the motive, may be lovely, compassion and selflessness, wanting to be of service, and it is still nourishing, but there is the rest of the shit that comes with it.” And that’s what I’m talking about: the rest of the shit that comes with it. We are dualistic in nature: the spirit and the flesh, the good and the bad, mashups of our greatest and worst hits, simul justus et peccator. “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” said Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. If even our virtues are poked through with selfishness, if even our fancy clothes have pit stains, if even all our righteousness is as filthy rags, then where does that leave us?  


We are screwed, y’all.

But God and my counselor remain consistently unsurprised about my rap sheet of sins. In fact, the only one who faithfully clutches her pearls about them has two thumbs and is writing this post. When I sat down with my counselor recently and informed him I’d be ordering from the Guilt side of the menu, he listened patiently while I launched into the current darkness plaguing me: the fear that I caused my son’s spectrum disorder by the shock and ambivalence I felt during his infancy at becoming a parent for the first time. No, it’s not rational, but there are serpents hissing in women’s ears in modern suburban gardens too. I cried, and my counselor gently informed me that he’s never met any parent who is not ambivalent about the enterprise of raising children; in fact, if he had, he would worry for their children because that’s just not real. Which, to me, is a kinder way of articulating my theory that people who are happy all the time about their children or anything else need to be checked for a robotic implant. There is always a deeper layer of truth than the one we’re prepared to share.

Is this the point at which I remind us all that even Atticus Finch turned out to be a little bit racist?

Ready for some good news? It’s often only in the crucible of sin that I am made what I’m next meant to be. The glory is that God not only allows this but is in it. And that crucible is sometimes full of more “good” deeds than “bad”. One of the most scandalous and exquisite things to me about the Gospel is that it has set me free from all the performing and good deeds that I once clung to to save me. Which is good news indeed for a woman who is just tired. My suspicion, were I to engage in some vision-casting about the future, is that one day, likely on the other side of eternity, we will look back and find that gravity was far from the only thing holding us down in this life; that our quests for perfection and validation clung like shackles to our feet and led us to designations like those people until we began to see–hopefully this side of eternity–how we are all those people. How even God became one of those people to make us the we that Frederick Buechner describes:

Beneath our clothes, our reputations, our pretensions,
beneath our religion or lack of it,
we are all vulnerable both to the storm without and the storm within.

The we that turns into an all, and the redemption engineered by One who silences storms and walks through fire to become–and make us–beautiful.