I once saw an interview with a former model who was well into her seventies and still quite lovely. In amazement, the interviewer asked her how she had been able to maintain her beautiful skin even into old age. The former model discussed her regime of almost butter-like lotion slathered on her face daily and the rather long list of things she avoided (including the sun, caffeine, etc). At first, I admit I thought about what it would take to try to stifle the encroaching years upon my own face, but I was stopped by the ridiculousness of trying so hard to preserve something that cannot be preserved, and, meanwhile, sacrificing so much joy and life.
Why would we be willing, even for a second, to trade living life for the illusion of a perfect life? We could point our fingers at the unrealistic expectations imposed upon us by the media, but we’d really be accusing ourselves. For all our grumbling, we want that perfection not because it is sold to us, but because it speaks to our need to control.
In our real lives, we have not yet mastered the technological advances needed to create this perfect life on earth, but we are certainly working towards it. The last 100 years or so have opened up realms of control previously undreamed of. In our homes, we can control the weather, the smell, and the light. We bathe ourselves in scented soaps, cover blemishes with skin-tone matched makeup, and dress ourselves to flatter. We then sit on our comfortable couches and turn on the TV for shows recommended to us based on our previous viewing choices. Every moment of the day, we surround ourselves with our man-made inventions and try to control every aspect of our lives.
And somehow we are still not happy.
Perhaps it is because life is supposed to be a bit messy. Perhaps it is because we live a bit more when we understand that we aren’t in control.
In 2009, director Jonathan Mostow released a film called Surrogates starring Bruce Willis. The movie is set in a futuristic setting where everyone lived life via robotic avatars. People are plugged in at home while their picture perfect robots enter the world and interact with others. In this way, people are able to control exactly what they look like, sometimes choosing avatars that look like a never-aging version of themselves and other times picking different genders or races. While Willis investigates a murder, he ends up destroying his surrogate robot and must then interact with the world without the benefit of his avatar. The movie becomes an interesting illustration of how technology can allow us to retreat from meaningful relationships as Willis struggles to connect to his wife. In one meaningful scene, Willis attempts to speak to his wife. Compared to her avatar, she looks dilapidated and tired, wrapped in a robe with hair unkempt. Willis wants to share what he’s been learning, but she is unable to even listen to him. She hides away in her room until she can return as her perfect robot ready to smile and play without a care in the world while the real her is hooked up to machines. There is something so eerily similar about this futuristic movie and the way we often live our lives projecting a shiny image of ourselves via social media while the real us is a mess.
In our search for perfection, we’ve tried to sanitize those things we find distasteful, even violence. Matthew Schmitz in his article Violent Lessons, says the following:
Children arrive at adulthood by wading through a river of pixelated blood. Rape, murder, assault: The violence we see on screen exists outside and against civilization. No less remarkably (and perhaps not coincidentally), we have been insulated from a different kind of violence–the ordered bloodletting of the butcher’s shop, barnyard, and hunting field. Without the lessons these practices teach, we tend to approach violence either with naive squeamishness or with a cruel indifference to savagery….It sometimes seems to me that pacifism, veganism, humanism, nudism–all the -isms–only push violence out of view, where it becomes even crueler. (71-72)
He continues to explain that our removal of the real violence inherent in our world removes from us the understanding of the cost of life. The child raised on shooting games with limitless do-overs does not see the balance of give and take in real life. And I, who happily buy my meat packaged and plastic, don’t have to see what gave its life that I might thrive.
In the insulation of our homes, we can control what we see and experience. But what happens when we leave the four walls of our homes and encounter the real world? We see brokenness and destruction, but we also see life in the midst of death. We see a world that we can’t control, but a world that offers more than just a stage for our personal dramas. We can then remove the magnifying glass that both causes us to obsess over and hate ourselves, so we can see the bigger picture of the world, God’s world. A world that is beautiful, yet broken–a place of adventure and loss.
The real adventures, though, aren’t the ones manufactured by Hollywood where the lead character is rarely out of step with his plan and no one ever has morning breath or wrinkled clothes. The real adventures are those written by God that are a bit unpredictable and ask more of us than our sanitized lives will ever ask. It will also give us more than what we imagine–a life filled with meaning and purpose and uncertainty and discomfort. A life where we don’t have all the things we’d like, we certainly don’t look as good as we’d hope, and people don’t think we’re quite as special as we wish we were. But this real life filled with real people and real events will have roots that go down deep into our souls and bring true peace.
We might learn what Jesus meant when He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26). I think it’s more than just give, give, give until you die. I think it’s about reaching out for God’s plan instead of our plan. It’s about trusting Him to work redemptively in our struggles instead of trying to avoid them. It’s about learning what real life and real living is about and not what the world tells us it is about.
It means that we can stop retreating into our safe places of perfection and learn to live in this multi-faceted and unbelievably complex world that God has created and is redeeming. And it starts when we put stop chasing an idea of perfection that would rob us of life and walk outside.