Three months ago I ran my last collegiate 5k race. It was at the University of Kentucky on a big, beautiful, blue track. I’d always wanted to run on a blue track. I spent eight hours in the van with my teammates for the last time. We joked and argued as siblings would and I was not unaware of the comforting familiarity my team brought me. Between races, I sat underneath the bleachers and worked on my last undergraduate degree paper. The end of my time as a student seemed to be rapidly approaching in those moments and it was bittersweet. As I reflected on my years as a student, both in college and high school, I thought about all the changes I’d gone through. During my time as a Challenge student, I gained skills that prepared me to be a lifelong learner—skills I was able to build upon during college. I mastered concepts and memorized information, but I also discussed literature, philosophy, and learned to think critically and perceptively. The Challenge classes changed my mindset from “learn to pass a class” to “learn deeply because truth matters.” This mindset has allowed me to make lasting changes in my life and I would like to share some truths I learned during my last semester of college.
The semester before graduation I took Expository Writing, a required class for all seniors. In this class, I had to read Maribeth Impson’s “Writing to Serve Readers” and John H. Timmerman’s In the World: Reading and Writing as a Christian. As I read and processed these readings, skills I learned through Classical Conversations, I realized that I was not experiencing the freedom and joy that a good writing process breeds. I wasn’t viewing writing as a tool to explore truth and serve God and my readers. Much of this was due to the fact that I was trying to make my papers perfect on the first try. My writing class taught me two significant points that apply not only to writing but also to life. The first is that papers are much easier to write when following a step-by-step editing process. The second is that I shouldn’t waste time trying to be perfect. I needed to give myself the freedom to fail and focus on enjoying the process.
Perfectionism can be a bondage—both in writing a first draft and in living life. Through Expository Writing, I learned that the end product doesn’t come without several beginning steps. A good paper stems from a step-by-step writing process and a godly person comes from years of refinement. I read a book last year called Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. He explores the scandal of God’s grace. While reading, I was struck by how much freedom there is in Christ. So often, Christians revert to some degree of legalism. We get caught up in the rules—the rights and the wrongs, the black and the white. Like Mary’s sister Martha, we get stuck on trying to show a perfect front rather than stopping for a moment to simply be in the presence of our savior. This is an example of what perfectionism can do to someone’s life. It can take something that should be enjoyable and turn it into stress. When I expect my paper to be perfect after the first draft, it adds unnecessary stress to the process. I become scared to begin because I’m afraid of failing, of not being perfect on the first go around.
It’s the same with Christianity. Christians sometimes feel intense pressure to be the ideal picture of a Christian all the time. This can lead to rigid rule following and intense shame after messing up. Of course God wants us to be holy and righteous but He has a process for sanctifying us. We do not always have to have it all together. God does not expect us to be perfect after the “first draft.” Through the Holy Spirit, God works out one impurity at a time—slowly turning a sinner into the image of Jesus. Holy people are made through the process of many refining trials. In the same way, a good paper is born from many editing steps. Each step focuses on working out one impurity in the paper. One step focuses on the arrangement of paragraphs, another on the arrangement of sentences, and yet another on the detail of grammar. Both Christianity and writing a paper require step-by-step processes. It is okay to accept that my paper will not be perfect after one draft, and it is okay to accept that although I am a Christian, I am a broken individual—it is okay to not have it all together. The process works. Given time, both a paper and a Christian can become beautiful masterpieces.
The second thing I learned impacted me the most: don’t waste time trying to be perfect. Give yourself the freedom to fail and enjoy the process. I read that having a good writing process gives freedom to make mistakes but what I didn’t realize is how freeing that experience can be. Letting go of my fear of failure was a wonderful, joyous feeling! Starting a paper no longer felt like a daunting task. Instead, I wrote down whatever came to mind because I knew that I would go back at a later time to fix any mistakes. Breaking loose of the chains of perfectionism gave me the opportunity to focus on exploring the truth instead of being paranoid about my grammar. By giving myself permission to make mistakes, I found myself thinking less about the grade I might receive and more about whether my writing would benefit my readers and honor God by speaking truth. Allowing myself to be imperfect impacted my life outside of writing as well. When I’m not worried about making myself appear to be a perfect person who has it all together, I’m able to be more transparent with others. This transparency goes a long way in sharing my faith with others. I am a broken vessel. Being transparent allows others to see through the cracks and witness God at work inside of me.
Not only has the freedom to fail affected my writing and Christian walk, it’s affected nearly every other aspect of my life as well. All track season, I wanted to kick with 600 meters to go but I never got the courage to do so. I was afraid I would run out of energy before I reached the finish line. However, on that beautiful blue track in Kentucky, I realized that it was my last college 5k ever. It was my last opportunity to kick with 600 meters left. And you know what? When I kicked that far out, it was invigorating. It felt terrible but racing always does. I was able to leave the track with no regrets, and that was worth all the racing pain in the world. I wish I had kicked like that every race but instead I wasted time because I was scared of failure. However, failing is authentic—it happens to everyone. During my time at college, I hurt and I grew. I was broken and put back together again. I struggled and I overcame. That’s life! Looking back, I can see how things that seemed to be failures shaped me into who I am. If I could pass on one piece of advice to a Challenge student, I would say that taking risks knowing you might fail is a huge part of learning. Failing is just as important as succeeding because it teaches you resilience and how to rely on God’s strength. Failure doesn’t mean you are a failure—it simply means you are in the middle of a refining process. Expository Writing helped me realize that, and I have Classical Conversations to thank for equipping me with the tools to engage in meaningful learning. In the end, embracing imperfections allowed me to leave college with no regrets. So get out there and embrace the slow process of change. Make mistakes, be refined, and enjoy the freedom that comes with accepting that you are not perfect—you simply serve a God who is.
Jessica began Classical Conversations when she was in 6th grade, and she completed one year of Foundations and all of the Challenge programs. She graduated in 2011 and went to Bryan College on an academic/athletic scholarship. She ran cross country and track while studying Biology Education. She completed her degree along with a Chemistry minor in 2016. She now works as a science teacher at Ross School in East Hampton, NY where she helps coach cross country and track.