Book chats with Danielle: Present Over Perfect

I just finished the book, Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living by Shauna Niequist. Shauna was a guest on a podcast I listened to a while back, and listening to her talk about this book was compelling because I've suffered from a habit of hustle for most of my adult life.
The subtitle of the book really gives the story away--it essentially narrates her journey from a frantic way of living to a more sustainable, joy-filled life. At the end, Niequest writes,
"[...] I was on a dangerous track, where I was giving the best of myself to people and things 'out there,' while the tender inner core of my life and home were increasingly stretched, pressurized, brittle. And now they're not. Now the most beautiful, well-tended, truly nurtured and nourished parts of my life are the innermost ones, not the flashy public ones. That's just as it should be" (228-229).
This quote really is the heart of the book--how and why we must nurture ourselves.

I think this book likely speaks to many women since the expectation of women in our society is to do all and be all for all. For me, this book came five years too late. In my mid-twenties, I battled with these same pressures and eventually traded my frantic pace of life for a slower one when my husband and I welcomed our second child into our home.

There are ideas from the book that I'll be exploring in the days to come: Which emotional resources of mine have been depleted? How did they become so? Who did God create me to be? How do I fully embrace this? What am I attempting to outrun?

For the most part, though, it was a chore to even finish the book.

First, at page 92 the book seemed redundant, and I still had over 130 pages left. Each "chapter" (really, these were more like essays or blog posts) is short and essentially seems to say the same thing: I was in a habit of biting off more than I could chew. I needed to slow down. This message might be better communicated in a series of blog posts rather than an entire book.

The second issue I had with the book was the glaring sense of privilege from which Niequest writes. Her first detailed revelation of needing to slow down was during a family snorkeling trip in Hawaii. The chapter is titled, "Tunnels"--as in tunnels of reefs. She ends this section with,
"I'm thankful for that day, weaving through the tunnels with my precious boy, when the violence inside me became profound enough to shake me into new solutions" (73).

There is a trend now in literature (in both sacred and secular) to fashion a non-fiction book in this way: Woman writer is unsatisfied with her life; goes on a vacation and has big, life-changing revelations. And these books are wildly popular. I've got a bad case of wanderlust, but my current stage of life doesn't allow for extravagant travels, so admittedly, I enjoy reading about other people's cool trips and what they learn along the way. Nevertheless, I worry about this message of privilege--especially when it's tied to a major Christian publisher like Zondervan. I worry about associating privilege with spiritual revelations. This book feels like it's written for a particular social class, and that's fine--a writer has to narrow her audience; but it feels like more and more mainstream Christian publications are written for the middle to upper-middle class, and I worry about the message this sends.

And then there's the implication of this as a Christian publication with many references to God but little reference to scripture. I don't think it was Niequest's intent, but it seems to me that the book can be misread as a book that reinforces an "I am enough" theme without reinforcing the gospel message. I don't buy into a theology that promotes earning God's love and approval, but I do subscribe to a biblical view that believes God sent Jesus to save us because we couldn't save ourselves. I understand the concept of taking ownership over our own lives and not allowing others to dictate how we spend our time and energy.  Niequest encourages readers to embrace agency in their own lives. She writes,
"You can live on a farm or out of a backpack. You can work from your kitchen or in a high-rise. You can worship in your living room or a cathedral. [...] You can wear slippers or heels, eat steak or kale, read poetry or spreadsheets, fall asleep to the hum of the city or out under the stars. You get to make your life" (103).

While it's true that we get to  make these choices, the book felt more about engaging in things or experiences that make us happy rather than dying to self (Romans 8:13). My friend, Amee, and I were texting about this book, and she said,
"I like the concept of simplifying our life and saying no to things so we can say yes to others, but I feel like the bigger picture of why we should do that isn't really about us and making 'me' time; it's to use that time to invest in things that impact eternity. I want to free up time to bake cookies for my neighbors so they can know Jesus. I want to free up resources so that they go to others because Jesus gave up so much for me. Not so I can relax and have more margin."
I couldn't agree with Amee more. I traded a life of hustle because I physically couldn't keep up anymore. I found that when I said no to certain things (things that were good and honorable), I was able to say yes to opportunities like having coffee with a stay at home mom at the end of her rope, helping immigrants become American citizens, feeding the hungry in my community, volunteering in my kids' school. I felt like Present Over Perfect focused too much on saying no in order to say yes to self-serving things.

If you're at a point in your life where hustle has become habit, where you feel like life is a matter of checking certain boxes and pleasing certain people, then you might find Present Over Perfect to be a worthwhile read. However, if you're of the Christian persuasion and reading this book, consider the larger message of the gospel: A Jesus who came to save us because we couldn't save ourselves; let that message compel you to trade a frantic, hustled life for more space to serve others.

No comments: