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Projection of Perfection

Emily Dean

Take that chance to be real. Light the candle. Illuminate the mess. Find freedom.

Sometimes I don’t clean my house. And I still invite people over. I know, I know, I must be some kind of monster. I grew up in an environment where everything had its place and just minutes before the doorbell rang to welcome in guests, runaway socks were thrown in closets, bedrooms slammed shut, drawers stuffed full. By the time the door opened and new faces flooded in, a candle was lit and a warm glow gave the whole house an ethereal feel of perfection. Well, that is, a projection of perfection.

Inside the closets creaked piles of discarded evidence of real life—the shoes that carried a body to the mailbox through a muddy driveway, newspapers that echoed threats of the recession, a pile of wrappers from three brothers who once again found Mom’s stash of hidden candy at the bottom of the underwear drawer. And every house we visited had the same ethereal glow and tense smiling face of a mother who had just crammed a drawer shut for 89th time that day. Everyone did it. The old mothers and old wives did it so the new mothers, new wives did it too, because a messy house screamed bad wife, careless mother, struggling human being. Every projection of perfection birthed a new one. On the odd chance that we landed at a house that didn’t have all the curtains freshly pressed and shelves dusted clean, we whispered and widened eyes at each other all the way home.

Yet inside, everyone knew to themselves that they were faking it. But only because they supposed that everyone else really did do their laundry every day, feed their children only healthy, homemade snacks, and have dinner on the table, hot and homemade, at 5 p.m. every night. No one was allowed to be sad, lusting, angry, jealous, confused, or lost. So everyone projected perfection to fit in, perpetuating the projection of hundreds more mothers and fathers and families. Now today, I fight my own projections of perfection. And the older that I grow, the more I see how my own and others’ false projections go beyond clean homes to shiny projections of pure hearts, stainless souls, and unmarked journeys. But it’s just not the truth.

Just as our closets betray us, so do our souls. We’re hurting people; we’re angry, we’re sad, we’re depressed, we’re starving, and we’re anxious. But we don’t want anyone to know because we’re so scared that the truth might make us into a lesser human being, that it might disqualify us from worthiness. But oh how false our assumptions are. Here’s what I’ve learned: I’m a mess, and no amount of running around, stuffing trinkets in drawers, pasting false smiles on my face, dropping easy, quick-fix answers to life’s buffet of problems is going to change that. So I’ve thought. . . why not bring people into my mess?

The only way these vicious projections of perfections can end is by each of us raising our hand to admit that we don’t have it all together. When we’re brave enough to shine the spotlight on our mess, only then is it illuminated enough to alert others of our need for help. But if we can’t shine some light on it, they’re never going to find it. Taking that first step can be so freeing, because oftentimes our insides are even messier than our outsides, and letting people into our physical mess is the easiest way to invite people into our bigger emotional, mental, and spiritual messes. And friend, if we can’t leave a few coffee stains on the coffee table, then we can’t expect to discover the courage to open up about the trauma or anxiety or depression or disorder that’s angrily lurking beneath our surfaces.

In the meantime, be gentle with yourself. If you can’t yet shine a spotlight on your mess, start with the light of just a small candle. Leave that pair of socks out by the couch next time you invite people over. Don’t just say “fine” the next time a friend asks how you are. Take that chance to be real. Light the candle. Illuminate the mess. Find freedom.

Article by Angelina Burkholder | Photography by Hilary Hyland