“If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say”.
These are the words of Eleanor Oliphant, the title character in the bestselling fictional book Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The book tells Eleanor’s story, which is anything but fine. And yet as the words above capture, Eleanor knows that is not the story that she’s meant to tell others when asked, “How are you?” The story that she is meant to tell is that she is “completely fine”. And you know it’s the story that you are meant to tell too when asked, “How are you?”
Particularly when it comes to the workplace, the story that we are meant to tell our colleagues is that we have got it all together, that we’re competent and in control. That we are completely fine. We aim to “look fantastic – to ourselves, and to the rest of the world”.* And yet the reality is that this is likely a mask many of us are wearing. We’re not completely fine.
Will Storr in his book Selfie: How we became so self-obsessed and what it’s doing to us laments the “perfectionist presentation” we feel obliged to put on in our current culture. Because as Storr explains, it’s ruining us. "We're living in an age of perfectionism, and perfection is the idea that kills. People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they're failing to become". In other words, it’s exhausting trying to present all the time as completely fine when you are anything but. It’s a miserable way to live. We need a better way than this. And I believe there is one.
As a Christian person I have experienced an alternative to this “perfectionist presentation” that I have found wonderfully liberating. A better way, that addresses my drive to present as perfect, as having it all together. A way that goes something like this…
Central to the Christian faith is the God-man Jesus. Repeatedly throughout the Bible He is presented as the only one who is truly perfect. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). “In Him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5). “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The message of the Bible is that only Jesus is truly perfect.
But more than that, not only is Jesus perfect, the teaching of the Bible is that God considers those who trust in Jesus to be perfect too. Like a child who enjoys the benefits of being born into a wealthy family, the claim of the Bible is that those who trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection enjoy the benefits of being part of the family of God. Jesus’ status is your status. His perfection is your perfection. As one Bible writer puts it, “God made Jesus who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Perfection is found not in the perfect selfie, or any other way that we fall into the “perfectionist presentation” trap. Rather, true perfection, righteousness, can be found in Jesus.
How does that help me in a workplace where everyone presents as “completely fine”? How might it change the way that I answer the question, “How are you”? For me personally, trusting in Jesus’ perfection, which is bestowed upon me, has given me the freedom to admit that I don’t have it all together. To present in a way that is not always completely perfect. To say, “Actually, I’m not doing so great today”. Because God has bestowed Jesus’ perfect status upon me I don’t need to strive myself for perfection any more. I can admit weakness because it’s no longer up to me to achieve perfection. To live like this has personally been wonderfully liberating and freeing.
If that sounds like the kind of freedom you could do with more of in your life then just maybe Jesus has something important to say to our perfectionist culture. And just maybe He could free you up too to honestly answer the question, “How are you going?”
* Amanda Hooton, “Meet Instagram’s new ‘reality’ superstars”, The Good Weekend, May 5 2018.