I must confess: I was a teenage perfectionist. Once, I even had a neat room! Any grade less than 100% would send me into tears, and a wrong note on the flute would ruin a concerto. My classmates didn’t know what to make of me; for all they knew, I was of a different species, perhaps something like Homo Perfectus? Consequently, I became the target of a lot of jokes and even some physical violence. When I remember the eighth grade, what comes to mind first is the stifling weight of loneliness.
One day, my health class was doing a 1980s-style lesson on mental health. The teacher told us that “everybody daydreams.” A boy who always sat right behind me chirped up, “Even Emily?” Mrs. Backer smiled and responded, “Yes, even Emily.” Of course, I slouched into my seat and wished I were invisible. My mind took flight through the window of that cinderblock room that housed my embarrassment. I imagined all the places I would travel to get away from this small town and all the people out there who I might someday meet. There had to be someone like me. There had to be someone who would understand me. (Of course, by the time our assignment was posted on the chalkboard, my journey was over and my brain was fast at work.)
Fast forward three decades and here I am, joyfully creating with all of you. I have learned that “perfect is the enemy of fun” and I guide the choir to work hard while learning a piece but not to overthink a past performance. You may see me smile when my pinky finger lands on the wrong note or giggle when I end a hymn with a playful flourish. Let me tell you something that I hope by now is obvious: I am not perfect.
The journey from perfectionism to celebration was not a direct path from middle school health class to our blissful Old Stone Church. It entailed learning that grades are a reflection of someone else’s view of me and not a true statement of who I am. It involved separating myself from well-meaning mentors who valued competition over peace. Most importantly, it involved a lot of unabashed daydreaming. Some of those musings made their way into my diaries and left a trail of hope.
Through my imagination, I could develop empathy for other people. Conversely, by understanding and accepting other people, I could learn to accept myself. I could imagine faraway places and then write applications for grants that would take me to places like Qatar and Poland and Uruguay. Above all, I could hope outside the prison walls of my depression (a result of perfectionism and bullying) there would be a future and it would be better.
If you come into my messy, imperfect house, you will see a pile of beautiful boxes. Some of them contain old pen-pal letters or precious photos. Some of them contain recipes or stones I’ve collected from the places I’ve traveled. My favorite box, however, is one I gave myself. Back in those lonely days, I began to write letters to my future self. The envelopes are marked with specific dates (holidays, birthdays…) or with special occasions (“on a day when you miss Grandma,” “on a day when you are especially proud”…). Within are time capsule letters of a past me who could imagine herself out of rough times.
The world has changed since that era of handwritten letters. Now there is a website, futureme.org, where anyone can send emails to themselves and the message will arrive in your inbox on a specified date. Every so often I receive emails from young adult versions of myself. They are soothing reminders of growth and crystallized moments in time which would have otherwise been forgotten. I encourage you to write to future you!
This month’s hymn of the month is “Die Gedanken Sind Frei”–“Thoughts Are Free.” Though we all have different silent struggles, we also have the ability to think ourselves into a better day. We have a community which welcomes a diverse world of thoughts and hopes and dreams. Tonight I think I’ll write to that girl who was ashamed of her daydreams. Emily, I will write, You will turn your dreams into action. You will meet other people who do the same. And you will find joy just as much as you create it.