The joy of growing up in a wealthy suburb was that everything we needed was at our fingertips. Though like most teenagers who claim their towns offer nothing to do, we complained, but the reality was we were not left with much want, including one of the best school districts in the country. Our high school out-performed even some of the most elite private high schools. However, with that system, and insanely motivated parents, came a level of pressure that played out in many ways. From narcissism to depression, the psychological toll was great.
I remember a time when I was in fifth grade, and one of my friends got her first B ever. When she looked at her paper, she began to sob, wildly! I believe she now has a PhD. Unfortunately that was tame. By the time I graduated high school the suicide rates were pretty high I personally knew 4 kids, but with friends of friends, I knew of a dozen more.
For most of the kids who committed suicide that I either knew or knew of, the pressure to be perfect was a key driver to the act. That perfection was seen in the need for perfect grades because they were told that if they did not have them, they would not get into college, and their lives would be over. For others, it was because they did not fit a perception of who they should be, making them feel as if they were outcasts. This group included kids who were gay, and some who were socially awkward.
To combat this, our schools would teach early the by-line “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” But for a kid who feels that they can never live up to the high expectations of the culture, their perceived imperfection drives them to a place that makes what we all know to be temporary feel like anything but temporary.
However, when the bar is set at an unattainable place, it is hard to see past it.
When I was a sophomore, I went over to a friend's house. Billy (changed name) was home alone, and I did not call before I went over. I rang the doorbell, but there was no answer, so I checked the door to see if it would open. It did. I looked around the house and went up to Billy’s room. Billy was sitting on his bed, with his dad’s revolver sitting next to him. When I saw him and he saw me, he started to cry.
Billy was a good student, but did not fit in and was teased for being gay, even though he did not admit to it. The night before the attempt, Billy got into a fight with his dad where his dad lost it and said “Why can’t you just be a real man!”
In fairness to Billy’s dad, he quickly apologized. As Billy told me, but he could not help but think of how nobody saw him as a “real” man, and he did not think he ever would be. At that point, I sat on his bed, squeezing between him and the gun, put my arm around him, and said it would be ok. After a good cry, Billy took off to the bathroom. I popped out the cartridge of his dad’s gun. Billy put the gun back, and I asked Billy to come home with me. The whole thing scared the you-know-what out of me.
We left a note for Billy’s mom that he was coming to my house, so she would not freak-out when he was not home. Billy’s mom was smart, figuring something was up, and took Billy to the Dairy Queen where he told her everything.
Billy’s mom told him something powerful: “I love you just the way you are, and you are perfect in my eyes!”
You see the problem that so many kids, and I have to say, myself included, growing up in the high-pressure community, was that perfection was defined by others and not ourselves.
One thing I learned from that experience and from growing up in that community is that the pursuit of perfection is really not what life is about. I remember talking with my youth pastor at the time, and Jim (our youth pastor) asked me, “What would the world be like if we were all perfect? It would be pretty boring, wouldn’t it?” Then he talked about the Prophets and David.
You remember David, the Great King of the Israelites. When God picked him, not only was he not the perfect son, he was so scrawny and imperfect; he was not even invited to the selection. In fact, throughout all of David’s life, as good as a King as he was, he was just about the most flawed individual in the Bible. Yet, God loved him and continued to bless him.
As Christians, we have to always ask ourselves what standards are we living up to, what our society says is perfection or what God might say is perfection. I know it would have been impossible be perfect when living up to the standards of that community. However, I also know that though I will never be flawless, I have been blessed with God’s perfect love, as we all have.
When we are able to be authentic and live up to the potential that is within us, and not capitulating to commercial stereotype or false success, we will always be perfect in the eyes of God.
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen