An Object Lesson in Perseverance
Not everything in life goes to the swift and strong
For me, fall means more than spicy baked goods, craft fairs, or a wardrobe change. After a summer off, autumn means returning to part-time study in my graduate program. And this quarter, that comes with an extra challenge: Most of the people I started my program with have graduated.
When my classmates and I started together two years ago, I anticipated a couple years of intense full-time study. But I quickly realized I wouldn’t be able to sustain the pace I originally envisioned. The stress of taking two or three classes and working full-time would compromise my health. I was also concerned that I’d start focusing totally on the short-term goals of maintaining good grades and earning a new credential at the expense of less measurable long-term goals—gaining deeper insight into my academic interests, and thinking about the most satisfying ways of pursuing them.
For me, the best choice has been to take one course at a time. As a result, I’m not quite halfway through the program, while many of my classmates have moved on.
For someone with my personality—a highly motivated, mostly Type-A, recovering perfectionist whose gifts shine in academic settings—that’s been kind of difficult. It’s also been a bit strange being one of the older people in my classes, having worked for a few years before returning to school. This year, for the first time, I had a professor my younger brother’s age. Add to these things a first-born’s sense of entitlement to do things, well, first, and you can see why I’ve been feeling a bit angsty.
Part of me understands that, angst notwithstanding, I’m the object in an object lesson about perseverance. If someone were writing a neatly resolved thematic study about this portion of my life, they’d probably reference the snippet from the oft-quoted first portion of Ecclesiastes 9:11: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong.” (Referencing the full verse—a challenging reflection on time and chance—would undermine a writer’s attempts to resolve the study neatly!)
The truth is, I’d rather be swift and strong. In fact, I often depend on these qualities. I think I’ve done some of my best work in short, intense bursts. I like holing myself away in my home with my laptop and a pile of books and emerging a day or two later with a paper. I can rise to the challenge of a sudden crisis—a flat tire along a busy highway, or a sensitive situation at work—fairly calmly. When I need to do a big project with only a week or two, I’m often energized enough to get past the feeling of being overwhelmed. I prefer swift and strong over slow and steady most days.
But as I’ve continued to grow spiritually, personally, and chronologically, I’ve started to value the slow and steady more highly. The chronological element is a big part of that—I’m no longer the college kid who could go days without a full night’s rest. I’ve experienced enough periods of burnout to know better than to live from crisis to crisis.
As I think more about what I’d like to contribute as a fledgling academic, the kind of work I want to produce demands deep thought and ongoing attention that can’t be rushed the night before. And when I read Scripture, I can see how being swift and strong isn’t enough to save people from judgment or calamity.
I’ve slowly begun to see how God is using processes—often processes that take longer than I’d like and move more slowly than I’d prefer—to develop patience and build my character. In some ways, I feel like God is re-orienting my sense of what it means to do something fully and well. As he does this, I’m receiving more than recalibration from a recovering perfectionist into a woman who can prepare and persevere. I’m also being given an opportunity to see the world differently from the way much of our culture does.
While I’ve read the occasional news story of mid-career reinvention, or of a Grandma Moses who is discovered at an advanced age, I notice that many of the stories I read about achievement focus on being swift and strong: On who did something first, or youngest, or fastest. The whiz kid or wunderkind, the top 30 under 30, or 40 under 40. And while that’s often a legitimate part of what makes an achievement valuable, I also think it can lead us to devalue the process of moving toward a goal through steady, persistent work over time—or cause us to feel pressure to rush an accomplishment before it’s due. It can also lead to the sense that one’s youthful accomplishments matter more than the things we do further along in life. (I once joked with a friend that one of the big disappointments of my early 20s was realizing that I was too old to be a child prodigy. When she laughed and said she’d had the same thought, I realized I’d made a lifelong friend.)
I’m grateful for the opportunity I’m being given to slow down and synchronize my sense of what’s important with what I can discern about God’s timing for my life and the wisest use of the energy he’s given me for all of my goals and responsibilities. And I’m curious: Are there any other highly motivated, mostly Type-A, recovering perfectionists out there? What experiences has God allowed into your life to recalibrate the way you think about strength and swiftness? What Scriptures or scriptural insights have helped you?