“Present over Perfect living is real over image, connecting over comparing, meaning over mania, depth over artifice . . . . It’s about rejecting the myth that every day is a new opportunity to prove our worth, and about the truth that our worth is inherent, given by God, not earned by our hustling.”
Shauna Niequist uses the word “hustle” a lot. She’s familiar with the term, a woman whose core was haunted by the specter of Never Enough, the incessant bark of Hustle! Hustle! Hustle! echoing in her mind like a rabid high school basketball coach, refereeing every thought and action. The hustle brought her book deals and solid branding, a fan base and storied acquaintances flung far and wide; it brought travel and security and a sense of purpose. But then, as such things go, there was no hustle left to give – at least not without sacrificing something sacred. “Something reached a fever pitch in my life, and then something snapped, died. And no amount of coaxing will bring that thing back to life again. Something, it seems, is over.” And that’s how this little collection of autobiographical essays begins – with Niequist proffering for us her thoughts on the “single most profound life change” she has yet experienced: her movement from perfect to present.
Shored up by accolades from an impressive collection of writers – Brene Brown, Donald Miller, Glennon Doyle Melton and Lauren Winner, to name a few – and written in the essays-cum-memoir style that is de rigueur for so many female writers of the self-helpish genre these days, Niequist has a built-in audience for her work. It seems a lot of us are in Niequist’s boat, overtaxed and overcommitted, somehow convinced that our faithful witness and our pleasantness are inextricably intertwined, fearful of what would happen to our lives if we were to allow the other shoe to drop. The chronic busy-ness normalized by contemporary society and a faith culture that encourages few hard boundaries make for a mean set of expectations for Christians in general and Christian women in particular. Niequist examines these expectations, essay by essay, through the lens of a woman who can no longer tolerate the rules of the game, each essay delving, from different angles, into what she understands to be the underlying questions driving her situation and, ultimately, her transformation, “the heart of the conversation: the heart, the cavernous ache. Am I loved? Does someone see me? Do I matter? Am I safe?”
It’s a good book. It will reach a lot of people. Some reviewers even admit to finding tears in their eyes as they read through Niequist’s essays. I don’t disagree – Niequist is a fine writer and I have shared some of her experiences and come to the same conclusions in my own life. They’re worth writing about. And yet. The fact that an entire genre of this sort of anecdotal memoir-esque spiritual transformation literature specifically centered on the female Christian experience at this period in history should tell us something. The idea that we are somehow unworthy of God’s love and in need of others’ approval is one that swept my (and Niequist’s – we are roughly the same age) generation up so thoroughly that when Anne Lamott, the matriarch of this particular genre, came out with Traveling Mercies in 1999, the book itself was a form of triage. We were all, it seemed, starving, bingeing, purging, pleasing, apologizing, and otherwise disassociating ourselves from our bodies and, dare I say it, souls, due largely in part to the zeitgeist of Western Protestant Christianity, made diseased by the festering boil of unaccounted for misogyny, an undercurrent of patriarchy informing the messages given to young Christian women at the time.
And now those young women have grown up, found jobs, had families—and written books. Times have changed…a bit. The word “woke” (an awareness of social and racial justice) found its way into common parlance. Some Christian communities have acknowledged and repented for white male privilege. And the women who were given the message as teenagers that their worth was somehow tied up in performing, pacifying or pleasing others are now tired. Niequist’s emotionally honest account of her movement away from self-loathing and toward deeper self-acceptance is a balm for those exhausted female masses yearning to breathe free. Niequist writes, “I’m finished hustling for perfect. It didn’t deliver what they told me it would.” Pray that we as the church will not burden our daughters’ generation with the same malevolent messaging that makes “hustling” for approval seem normal. Pray that our daughters have the ears to hear the truth, from cradle to grave: that they are inherently glorious. Powerful. Loved.
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