Effortless Perfection

The following article was published anonymously in Duke's student newspaper, The Chronicle, back in 2003. (On my 14th birthday, actually---long before I was ever accepted as a Blue Devil). I've edited it down a little simply because a portion of the article deals with an eating disorder, which is (fortunately) something I haven't ever struggled with and I didn't want anyone to think that I was referring to myself. (You can find the original article here.) But the truth is... I see this all the time on campus. I believe this article is just as relevant today as it was seven and a half years ago.

She was, in many ways, a typical Duke student. She enjoyed her classes, but she was smart, not brilliant. She went out occasionally, but she was at best, cute, not beautiful... She was, what you could call, a "student leader;" she attended meetings with "Larry" and "Zoila" and "Nicole," and generally knew what was going on on campus. She had the onion-peels-friend structure: the widest layer of natural acquaintances from classes, freshmen dorm, organizations, an inner layer of good friends from different groups, and a small core of intimate friends.

People thought she was self-assured, articulate and together. "Oh you do so much!" they said. Just like every student on campus. No one would have ever suspected she harvested anything but happiness and a prestigious degree from her Duke experience.

She worked hard on that exterior. It was important. Because what no one suspected was the demons that controlled her life, that had ravaged her self-esteem during her four years at Duke. No one realized how she felt from the moment she rolled out of bed to the early morning hours when she hit off the light. Like a failure. "Effortless perfection," the Women's Initiative called it. Female undergraduates wanted "effortless perfection." It was the new catch phrase. She didn't even want effortless perfection. Just perfection. She'd work for it. She wasn't afraid of work. But she was fixated on the ideal, and sooner or later, it all began to come undone.

She'd never been particularly self-critical or low on self-esteem in high school. Like all Duke students, she had made the grade, led the team, won the award, gotten the scholarship. But college was hard on her. She wasn't used to... the competitive acquisition of a new group of friends... She wasn't used to people thinking her A-minus wasn't good enough, or that wearing sweatpants in public was something to be scorned. She wasn't used to the constant reiteration that she just wasn't good enough the way she was.

...she wavered on the edge of self-confidence, and the seemingly minute failures began to stack up, layers of bricks in the wall that slowly was pressing all the oxygen out her lungs... Too boring. Too unhappy. Too dumb.

Too scared.

Too scared to tell anyone how out of proportion the little failures had become. The little failures, the demon "almost but not quite..." Failure boxed her in, trapped her in a roomful of mirrors confronting her with her "almost, but not quite" life...

Sense of failure isolated her from her friends. She felt nervy, anxious. She was a senior without career plans, the only non-banker amongst them. She watched them fly to New York and compare interview notes, and she knew she'd never make it in the corporate world. Another failure. Poor people are not effortlessly perfect. She had loans to pay. "So what are you doing next year?" they smiled and asked. "Well?" Nothing. Because she wasn't good enough.

Her lack of interest was a failure. She'd never been anything if not energetic. But now she felt different. Flaccid. Tired. People called it "senioritis." "Oh yes," she laughed, "I'm ready to graduate." But all she wanted to do was go to her room, lock out the world, lie in bed, sleep and not wake up. She didn't want anyone to see her... the grades she couldn't forget, the classes skipped she couldn't forget, the date functions with her girlfriends she couldn't forget. Entering the world meant walking outside to see "effortless perfection" striding across the grass, stepping on the bus, strutting down the runway. It meant seeing the world through the film of inferiority.

So on the outside she smiled and she ran and she led and she studied... and she played the role of "effortless perfection" to the world. But alone in her room she hid and she ate... and ignored the phone and skipped her classes.... Until she started to worry her fa├žade was going to crack. And she would have to commit the greatest failure yet: admitting there was a problem...

I know way too many people at Duke who could have written this. Goodness, I could have even written portions of it. This year at Duke has been rough, to say the least. I'm SO ready to be done with classes and exams and forget all about this semester. I'm ready for summer and a chance to clear my head and start my senior year fresh.

But even when things seem messy and complicated and somewhat hopeless, I'm SO glad that Christ was perfect so I don't have to be. I'm completely over the whole "effortless perfection" thing. My life is far from perfect. Amidst all the doubts and insecurities that go along with being a Duke student (or a student of any top ten university, I assume), I'm so glad that I find who I am in Him, and not in grades or internships or GPAs.

And I'm so glad that I was reminded of that yet again this past Easter weekend.