And it was a lot less existential than it sounds.
See, I've been helping with the Wednesday Night Kids Thing at the Little Church (Okay, so I won't be anymore, but that's a horse of a different color, and a story I'll tell once I find out if it's worth telling). But anyway, there's this precious little girl, who's about five, and I swear to you, guys, she *is* me. Back when me was not such a fun thing to be.
The Kids Thing is one of those rewards-centric, memorize-your-verses-and-win-prizes sort of things, just like my Sunday school class when I was only a little bit older than the kid in question tonight. And those things make monsters out of perfectionists like yours truly. No, really. I was a terror, mostly to myself, but to others too. See, we're good at that kind of thing, this little kid and I. But then you get used to being the best. And then you get stuck feeling like you have to be the best. And then you beat yourself up whenever you're not the very best, and you feel like the world is going to end.
All that to say. I came in to closing tonight, leading my class of girls who are rather older than the little girl in question, and discovered this little girl sprawled out and sobbing silently. As quietly as I could, because by now the lesson had started and everyone was quiet, I knelt in front of her and got her to choke out what was the matter.
"I didn't even get to finish one verse tonight," she said quietly.
And it was all in this moment when it dawned on me. This kid is me, you guys. Me back in the day, sure, but those demons still torment me today. The ones that try and convince me that my best isn't good enough, that my value comes from my ability to be perfect, that I'm never going to measure up.
So I tried to give her a pep talk. Remind her that it was all for fun, that it doesn't matter so much, that she did her best, that next week would be better. I convinced her to sit up and listen to the teacher and moved into the seat next to her. And subsequently watched her get more and more upset as her one little hand, in a classroom of thirty-three others that were bigger and louder, kept getting passed over to answer questions. And the one time she got called on, her answer simply wasn't what the teacher was looking for. Neither of these things are an injunction against the teacher - on any other day, the little girl wouldn't have been bothered. But tonight, with her tiny fledgling ego already bruised, it was the end of the world. Her normal avenue for finding value and worth had left her high and dry, and she felt small, invalid, and unimportant. By the time the lesson ended and all the other kids were dismissed, she was sobbing again, slumped over in my arms.
And I held this fragile little thing as she cried and I hated all over again all the voices in her head and in mine whispering that if we're not perfect, we're not worth it.
Another of her leaders came over, and started to giving her the single worst pep talk in the history of girlkind. Some line about how she's so pretty and smart and brilliant, and some day she'll meet a boy who thinks "This girl's so pretty, and smart, and she loves Jesus to boot," and he'll ask her out for ice cream, and wouldn't that be fun?
And I know the man meant well, but I wanted to smack him. Because that's exactly the problem, and there's not a snowball's chance that that's going to help her feel any better. Because she's already putting enough pressure on herself, already finding value in all the wrong places - and telling her that all her hard work is going to pay off when she meets some nice boy who appreciates it? I'm sorry, but that's crap.
So I interrupted him. And I told her exactly what I need to hear (and still, so often, have a time-and-a-half believing) whenever I'm feeling worthless. I told her, over and over again, that the Very Most Important Thing is that God loves her - no matter what. And that she doesn't have to be good enough for God's love, and that God doesn't stop loving her if she gets questions wrong or doesn't get to say her Bible verses. That God loves her even when she's not perfect, and even when she messes up, and that she's so, so, so special, even when she has a bad night at Bible study. And I asked her if she knew that, and she nodded. And I asked her if she believed it, and she nodded again. And I hope, I pray, that this little girl heard my words. Eventually her tiny little shoulders stopped shaking, and I brushed away the hair that was stuck to her tears, and I pulled her away to where I could see her face. And I looked her in the eye, and I said in a no-nonsense kind of voice, "You're gonna be okay."
She got a giggle out, and ran to join her friends. Probably, by now, she's totally forgotten about it; but it's four hours later and I still can't get it out of my head. There's a piece of me that wishes I was going to get to watch this kid grow up so that I can keep trying to help dismantle the demons in her head before she gets too old to get rid of them. But since I might never see her again, I just have to pray that what I said tonight stuck, and that God will send wise friends her way who won't let her beat herself up over stuff, who will remind her to hand her imperfections to God and trust him to love her no matter what. And if I'm ever a mom, and if my little girls (or boys) are anything like this little girl, anything like me (which there's a pretty fair chance of), I'm gonna tell them the same thing. God loves you even when you're not perfect.
Remember that, will you?