I am a perfectionist, or at least a recovering one. And I’m an idealist, certainly.
I used to think that if something wasn’t perfect, I had to throw the whole thing out – literally and figuratively. A craft. A photo. A memory. I scribbled in a journal? Time to start a new one. Bad grade? Time to band-aid that up with extra credit. Fight with a friend? Couldn’t sleep until I had “fixed it.” My professor thought my photograph was rubbish? I must be an all-out failure of an artist and I must start a new career path.
But recently I stumbled on a new thing. Or rather, I came up with a name for it. A new spot in my heart. A belief that I think has been building for a while.
What if things don’t have to be all rosy, all sweet, all perfect…in order to be good? (I know I know, groundbreaking, right? Fellow perfectionists bear with me!)
What if almost everything in life is gonna be both bitter and sweet – partly great, partly a little hard – light and dark dancing together – and what if that’s better? What if we really do need both? What if we can really embrace both?
I have been in the bittersweet place before, friends. Oh yeah, and I remember how tender and weird and scary it was most of the time. Things were changing fast, and so many things were exciting and good and new. But I simultaneously felt my heart hurting, or maybe even breaking, over what used to be, and over who I myself used to be. I was mourning and celebrating all at once, back and forth many times in the course of a single day. “It’s good,” I tried to say to myself. “The change is good and the adventure is good!”
However, I really can’t say that I felt all sweetness. I found myself waking up in the middle of the night, pillow wet with tears and heart racing in the dark, stomach growling because I hadn’t actually eaten anything for dinner either.
Graduating is this way. Moving is this way. Breakups are this way. Family changes are this way. Losing someone is this way. A diagnosis is this way.
Bitter and sweet, both. The initial grape-like juiciness of a glass of red wine, followed right in the same moment by that bitter, deep aftertaste. Or maybe a totally mustard-y, strong vinaigrette that tastes sorta sour until you finally discover the sliver of honey that reveals itself in the end.
When I am in the middle of them, my bittersweet seasons feel cruel to me. Like, why can’t things just be all-happy, all the time? Why can’t this glass of wine just taste like a Sprite? That would be my ideal world, I once thought. All sugar, all the time.
But. What if the sweet memories and the tear-stained pillows can still live together, and maybe even dwell together harmoniously? What if God uses both of them best when they’re mixed together? Kinda like how if you eat pantry ingredients separately, it won’t taste nearly as good as a whole, mixed batch of cookie dough? Or better yet, the finished cookie?
I have a lot of friends who are in the middle of these seasons right now. And, I guess, I am too.
People are getting new jobs and mourning the loss of jobs they thought would be around for a lot longer. Friends are moving to new states and new cities and totally loving the discovery of it all. But that doesn’t make it any easier to be thousands of miles away from your mom.
Best friends and siblings and loved ones are getting married, which of course is one of God’s greatest gifts and the beginning of some of life’s greatest adventures and stories. But it’s also hard to watch the old days fade and feel the family tides roll and wonder what the next chapter holds. It’s only fun to be single at so many weddings (represent!). After a while, you really do wonder when you’ll be the one in white.
We are trying to figure out who we want to be, what kind of people we’re becoming. Which is exciting and transformational, quintessentially a 20-something thing to do, full of guts and courage and faith. But the process also requires us to say goodbye to the old friends and the old habits and the old songs that no longer fit. We can’t, in fact, wear last season’s clothes. Which means we get to buy new ones, which is fun, but which means we also have to let some others go. And that’s hard. Sorta like you get to go to the mall, but you have to go naked. That’s scary, people. For all involved.
Bitter + sweet.
Friends, I think there’s hope here – right in the center of this. Right at the epicenter of the waiting and the tides of all these feelings.
I used to think that if something wasn’t perfect, I had to throw the whole thing out, or at least try to fake that I was fine. A friendship, fractured. A vacation where we actually did a lot of fighting. A whole season of life when I did a lot of crying.
But that way of thinking is not preaching the story of redemption over myself.
In Christ, I am not a slave to what was. I am not required to be perfect, feel perfect, act perfect. There is grace for me. In the bitter and the sweet. There’s grace for us to be real about how we’re feeling and talk about it. There’s grace for us to admit its hard and challenge each other to run all-out after God anyway. There’s grace for us to grow and hold each other loosely and forgive one another and forgive ourselves.
I guess when things are in your life for long enough – whether a place or a person or a practice – there is bound to be both good and bad memories wrapped up with those things.
And that is good – it’s for our good.
The sweet teaches us gratitude and the bitter keeps us strong and level-headed and moving forward.
And, although I used to think it would be easier, I am not going to eat only the sugar or only the chocolate chips. I’m signing up for the whole cookie.
In fact, I’m signing up for a whole meal that contains a thousand flavors – tart, tender, bitter and sweet, maybe all at once, all in the same mouthful.
Not all the same, and not all sweet, but rich nonetheless.