Several years ago, when I was in a newer social circle and lonely, a friend said I should wear fewer cardigans because people thought I was too put together to be approachable. I checked this with a college chum. “Yeah,” she agreed, “People are intimidated by cardigans.”
My early 30s self worried over that a great deal. But now, at 37, I’m ready to say “to heck with what other people think. I’m going to wear what I like.” I’ve heard that this is what happens when you come up on 40, and although I have a ways to go on this journey, I was interested to find Shauna Niequist’s new bookPresent Over Perfect, in which she chronicles her own reassessment of life at the crossroads of midlife.
As an aside: why do so many people insist that 40 is middle aged? I feel like 50 is the gateway. But no matter what your stage of life, I think Shauna’s broader theme of evaluation and recentering are widely applicable and valuable for consideration.
At first, I wondered if the book was for me. The inciting incidents that got Shauna started thinking about these things were mostly about being too busy and being hyper-successful. I’ve made a lot of conscious decisions to avoid busy-ness and no one could accuse me of being overly successful! But the more I thought about it, I realized that even in my less busy life, I have a tendency to become overwhelmed by various things, to give in to stress, to push and push and push through exhaustion because it’s expected…and the results are not that far off from what Shauna experienced.
“There we were, women in our thirties. Educated, married, mothers, women who have careers, who manage homes and oversee companies. And there we were, utterly resigned to lives that feel overly busy and pressurized, disconnected and exhausted.”
Reading this book made me more mindful of all the times that I power through. Only four hours of sleep? Oh well, power through! Fussy baby, toddler tantrum, angry siblings, work deadline and dinner isn’t made? Power through! It’s been a long week and I’m exhausted and just want to read a book? Someone has to buy the groceries, power through! Once I began evaluating whether or not I am “utterly resigned” to the “busy and pressurized, disconnected and exhausted” parts of life, I found plenty of examples.
“That’s part of the challenge of stewarding a calling, for all of us…we have more authority, and therefore, more responsibility than we think. We decide where the time goes. There’s so much freedom in that, and so much responsibility.”
Not only did I find plenty of examples of powering through, I also found plenty of space to back off of some things. A wise friend advised me to relax about some homeschooling issues. I decided that no one is going to mind if I sleep until 7 and start school late one morning. I’ve simplified some meals, owned up to the fact that I absolutely HATE Twitter (even if it’s supposedly critical for small business marketing) and started to just say no to some standards I’ve internalized that aren’t really true to who I am and what God has called me to do. It has been pretty freeing.
I appreciated the way that Shauna wrote candidly about her own life and struggles, and welcomed the invitation to think about my own life and choices, even if they differ from hers, so I was surprised to see so many negative reviews of Present Over Perfect come up on Amazon. Many of them were of the “this author is too privileged” variety, which is funny since one of Shauna’s essays talked about what to do to when you find yourself saying, “Must be nice…” about someone else’s life. Rather than a simple discourse on envy, Shauna wrote about how to turn away from it by owning your feeling, thinking about what you’re really saying, bearing other people’s burdens, and owning your own choices.
Present Over Perfect gave me a lot to think about. I read it slowly, then went back and did some deeper thinking and writing about my responses. I get the sense that Shauna is coming out of the season I’m just entering, and for that reason I found the book incredibly helpful and ultimately encouraging.
I am often asked for a book recommendation by people who don’t have a lot of time to read. In my view, if you’re only going to read one book per season (or so), you should make it one that has the potential to change your thinking and perspective on life. Present Over Perfect is that sort of book. I highly recommend it.
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