Who doesn't want to operate at their very best? What if striving for the best comes at the expense of the growth and wisdom that is achieved in the incremental "better"? Rozann Carter explores her path to self-improvement as Lent approaches, and discovers that "best" is not always, well, best.
I am an overly ambitious alarm clock setter.
My late-night self has way too much faith in my early-morning self. Right before I go to sleep, I become a daily workout fiend, an avid holy hour keeper, a homemade omelet maker, a morning person that would shame the likes of Mr. Folger himself. In the delusional stupor of midnight, I confidently set my iPhone alarm(s) for a lofty 4:30 (4:35) (4:40) am to get a head start on that book I am writing and send out 12-15 heartfelt thank-you notes while a week’s worth of lunches get rationed out from the slow-cooker.
Then, at 6:30 am, there are xylophones, pinball machines, and old-fashioned phones making one heck of a racket in my apartment. What?? How did this HAPPEN? Again? Livid and full of self-loathing, I scramble to get the day started with the backburners blazing, still with ample time but with a “Welp, the day is ruined” mindset. Lazy sloth me struggles to recover from the deflation of another fervent but unachieved goal. My opportunity to be the person I had pictured in my mind went right out the window… beside that iPhone blues musician.
With Ash Wednesday approaching, I realized that this “alarm-clock delusion” is an example of what seems to go wrong with my yearly approach to the Lenten season. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of “good, better and best,” which are not simply three measurements on a flow chart that vary in degree. Let me explain.
When the objective “good” (waking up earlier) collides with a productivity-obsessed mindset, I quickly assume, “well, if that is good, then that to the extreme must be best!” (waking up at 4:30 after going to bed at midnight). Immediately, the “good” looks lazy and lukewarm, and the best, just a magnification of the good, becomes the higher and more motivated, in fact “holier” goal. In short, my Lent “list” begins to look like I’m training for the Ironman during Ramadan in Calcutta. But, after Ash Wednesday, I ratchet it back to giving up all cookies except those that are technically referred to as “crackers” or which are unbaked and exist in the form of amorphous dough.
The problem is, jumping from a perceived “good” directly to the extrapolated “best” leaves no room for the “better”—the real heart of conversion and vocation. Lofty goals mixed with instantaneous expectations are like the biblical seeds on rocky ground. It is a recipe for spiritual and physical ruin, which is often followed by a debilitating introspection. Unfortunately, this also leads only to self-centeredness, a constant benchmarking of progress that is anything but Christ-centered.
To set a goal expressly because it is highest, toughest, and coincidentally “best” is a misunderstanding of spiritual growth and vocation. It causes one to obsess about value or degree rather than become an instrument of the mysterious will of God, discerned in individual “good” choices rather than self-generated plans. Then, paradoxically, it is programmatic and achievable; it is no longer highest, and it is certainly not best.
However, avoiding conversion to avoid pride isn’t the answer, either. Christ does, in fact, insist that we orient ourselves toward the ideal, the holiest, the best— and Lent is the perfect time to submit to this reorientation. Here is the catch: in our faith, the “best” is not a defined goal reached by the super-motivated. It is a person whom we encounter and who calls us— by way of our daily decisions— to continually surrender our lives to his will.
This Lent, watch out for the “alarm clock delusion.” Focus on the small, fervent, open-ended commitments that will allow you to be a receptacle rather than a mover-and-a-shaker; an instrument as opposed to a walking list of holy to-dos. Take the journey to “best” by way of individual “goods” which slowly and inadvertently make you, and all whom you encounter, better.
Rozann Carter is the Creative Director at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
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