Reality is an ally of God.”
— Richard Rohr

When I was in dental school, I spent most afternoons with the rest of my class in the lab, where we’d toil over fake teeth for three hours. It was just as fun as it sounds, which led to filling the time with wandering conversations over diverse topics. Religion often came up, as this was Alabama—the buckle of the Bible belt—and one afternoon a friend of mine laughed over an idea he’d had: did Jesus and the disciples ever fart in front of each other?

I was horrified. My friend was going off the rails, I was sure, and needed to be contained. At the time, I was in my early twenties and therefore knew everything while having no sense of humor about anything. I glared at him, saying he was being disrespectful (I’m sure the words Our Lord and Savior figured in heavily to my tirade). He maintained his opinion that Jesus and the disciples were comfortable enough with each other for wind to have broken; I maintained mine that the mere thought was blasphemy. We never did resolve the issue.

I still think about it, though, as a representative experience of that time in my life—a time that reeked of bad decisions and misplaced identity. That has become clearer in the time since, as I’ve been down a road that has burst the bubble of a God I created in my own image (and a self I created based on others’ expectations) and exchanged him for a real one. One who is infinitely more complicated, more unpredictable, and—yes—even more irreverent than I ever imagined (irreverent, that is, to my own set of expectations as to who he, and I, and everyone, should be). I know now that I needed a God then that I could manage, who voted the way I did and joined the same clubs where I had membership, who watched the same cable news I fangirled and had the same enemies I did. I arranged my world this way: predictable, and safe, without letting anything in that might poke holes in the ideal I’d created and in which I placed my safety.

It will never stop flooring me, how much and often we humans want to sub out God for a lesser one; how much we want grace to be manageable rather than amazing. How much we’d rather have a list than an empty page, an map than an open road. I say we because I’m seeing the sickness pop up everywhere, but lately I’ve been most aware of it on social media. I’m about to become a virtual diabetic from all that’s #sweet and perfect there. Luckily, I have my own innate cynicism to counteract the pristine images that grace my newsfeed.

I actually wouldn’t call it bitterness, though. I hope it’s realism. I’d like to think it’s an awareness of life in all its beauty, which includes its ugliness and brokenness. But don’t look for acknowledgments of life’s less pretty side on sites where the goal is perfection (be your best self! throw the perfect party! have the ultimate relationship!).

At first glance it seems harmless—but on closer inspection it feels insidious, what these perfect Instagram accounts put out daily, these feeds of vibrant color and trendy footwear and exhortations to wash our faces and be less anxious as though wholeness were just another number on a list to be checked off between “buy flowers that add a pop of color to your tabletop” and “pour the perfect refreshing Moscow mule at your next outdoor fete”?

Confession: since we moved to Australia, the unthinkable has happened: I’ve become an accidental entertainer. Before this phase of life, I’d watch House Hunters and wonder why an “entertainment space” seemed to be the defining feature of a desirable home, when I would much rather have a panic room to shield me from social interactions. The month before we left Atlanta, emboldened by my desire to create golden memories and say proper goodbyes, I convinced my husband Jason that we should throw a joint birthday/farewell party for our boys at our house. We were real assholes about it too, renting a gigantic bounce house and even a popcorn machine for the event. Before people started showing up, I countered my inevitable social anxiety with a Xanax and poured a glass of champagne. Cut to me afterward vacuuming the entire house without remembering it the next morning (cleaning hack!).

With the advent of a nice (rented) view and a school-age child, I’ve been motivated to open my home more regularly while, for sustainability’s sake, letting my Xanax prescription expire. (The champagne, however, remains. #progress.) I’ve made all sorts of horrifying social errors—not putting proffered flowers in water, bringing up money in polite conversation, fretting over crumbs—one time I even arrived late to my own gathering (Jason was thrilled about that one). If I were to visit a #lifestyleexpert (WTF) page for #inspiration, I’d likely shutter the house for good and force Jason to reenact Grey Gardens with me. The idea of perfection just stresses me out, even though I spent a good three decades grasping at it.

We’ve covered the sickness of perfection before, but it’s a recurring theme. Thankfully, so is grace. Which is what I read in Heather Havrilesky (aka Ask Polly)’s recent advice to a woman who reached emptiness despite her best efforts.

The solution is to admit that there IS a self there, inside of you. It’s a self that cares way too much. It’s a self that cries about sick puppies and old friends you lost and that boyfriend from a long time ago, the one who was nothing like your dad, the one who cared so much that it embarrassed you, so you got rid of him. It’s a self that could torpedo every lifestyle brand under the sun, because it’s a self that tells the ugly truth and then ugly-cries about it. It’s a self that can’t feel the magic in magazine pages and shiny images, but one that can sense the magic in the jagged moments in between, when things don’t look pretty, when the world shows its broken ass and it’s beautiful somehow.

You have to abandon the empty, successful, shiny shell of a person you became in order to please your father, to win your selfish boyfriends, to gain your glamorous magazine jobs, and you have to look into the inky hot abyss of your soul and pull out this wretched, messy self that you fear. You have to wipe the goop out of this self’s sad eyes like it’s your sick puppy. You have to cradle this self until it can stand and then walk forward. The very thought of this probably disgusts you. You’re sure that this pathetic self, who cares too much, is unworthy of love. That is the center of your malady. If you stare at that, without looking away, you will discover magic where you thought there was only a void…

Your charms are not needed anymore. Your fears are needed. Your sadness is needed. They lead to things you dearly want. They lead to things that won’t feel empty. You will care for your real self like it’s your anxious, overwhelmed child. This is real self-care. Not massages or bubble baths, but talking softly to your real, broken self, this jittery, broken girl who deserves your love. You will coax this girl forward gently, patiently. You will see that your overprotective, overinvested, neurotic self and the broken girl she cares for make up the very best parts of you. This is how you find your path. This is how you relocate your heart.

I don’t want to be pressured to be my best self. That’s not going to happen in this lifetime anyway. I don’t want a bootcamp for my soul or my party-planning skills or my home decor. I want to be surrounded by a love that accepts me, that gave itself up for me even when it already knew what an asshole I am, that doesn’t shake its head and yell in a drill-sergeant voice, “TRY HARDER NEXT TIME, GURL!” when I inevitably screw up and leave my face unwashed and wear yoga pants with a hole in the crotch and put processed food in my kids’ lunches and drink two more glasses of wine than I should.

I want to, occasionally, zone out for a few minutes to pretty pictures. Then I want to put the phone down because I know how easily I can slip into addiction when it comes to anything that can appear to make my life look better or feel easier. I want my idols shattered—and me along with them, when necessary. I want to look out at the real view, and see my children’s faces. I want to make mistakes and ask for their forgiveness. I want to show my friends how screwed up I am and watch as the fake ones fall away and the real ones don’t. I want to have hard conversations and meals that look more like Bridget Jones than Pinterest. I want to live in my comfortable, messy marriage and keep showing up. I want the photo not from the #perfectparty but from the hangover the day after.  And through all of that, I want to be held in the arms of one who, whether he farted or not, got ugly and broken for me.

I would love to fix it all for you
I would love to fix you too
Please don’t fix a thing, whatever you do
These bruises make for better conversation
Loses the vibe that separates
It’s good to let you in again
You’re not alone in how you’ve been
Everybody loses
We all got bruises