In his essay The Lesson of Grace in Teaching, Professor Francis Su suggests that grace is the most important component of the teacher-to-student relationship. By extending grace to students, he says, teachers relieve students of the burden of measuring up. They even rehumanize them.
Our culture’s lauding of achievement whispers to us with “the poison call of fame,” to quote Will Stratton’s song “The Relatively Fair.” Whatever podium you’re climbing towards, you may think that getting there will give you a sense of arrival—that perhaps the world’s recognition of your achievements will open up to you a truer, more vibrant, more joyful existence.
Trust me: it won’t.
I’ve dreamed of having my novels widely read. I’ve worked for 16 of my 26 years on story after story—so many that I truly do come across whole novels from childhood and adolescence that I’ve forgotten about completely. If it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours to reach that elusive level of mastery, I’m as much there as I can be at 26. After all, I’ve written three-quarters of a million words in practice of the craft. I’ve been read by others (even if the number is probably still under 100). I’ve received praise that makes me uncomfortable. I’ve learned to recognize respect in people’s voices and facial expressions and online comments. It stuns and humbles me (though not enough to not state the above).
I’m there, right?
Yes, but it’s not enough. I’m already planning the publication of my next book as I work through its edit. I’m doing the cover at the same time. I’m working through the concrete ways that I can give this book a bigger chance to make an impact. I’m looking into Kickstarter. I’m filling out spreadsheet after spreadsheet of information. I’m working from a shadowy, brainstorm-style plan towards something tangible. I’m cracking the whip on myself.
But achieving this isn’t going to make my life any better. It will add a lot of stress this summer, or whenever I do it. It will teach me many new things. It will get my book into the hands of more people who’ve never met me in person. But it isn’t going to make me feel at home, really at home, for more than a few moments here and there.
Solomon’s declarations of “Vanity, vanity! All is vanity!” in Ecclesiastes have begun to ring not with a deficiency of dopamine, but with cold, hard, intellectual truth. The guy wasn’t depressed; he was right. It is vanity. It is striving after wind. The fruits of this labor are not tangible or measurable. There is no way for me to look at my work and say “I have succeeded.” It could always be better. It could always have been better. When I hold the finished version of thisbook in my hand, it will just be the words that I wrote, edited, and typeset. I won’t be able to read the book and enjoy it, at least not for a while. I’ll be damn sick of it. This is just something I do. It’s something for me to build while I’m on this earth. But it isn’t going to fix me.
If you’re a workaholic like I am, you’re constantly pushing yourself. You go to bed dissatisfied with the day’s little achievements and wake up preparing to try again. You think about your project in the middle of the night. You think about it on Sunday afternoons. You can’t stop thinking about it, and when you finally sit down to work on it, you can’t always get it right. You can’t accomplish enough. You can’t earn your own approval for the day’s work, however great or small it was.
This is when you need to extend grace to yourself.
You extend grace to yourself when you give up for the day and say, “Oh well. It is just vanity of vanities, after all.” You extend grace to yourself when you stop expecting divine powers of you, O pinprick of significance—when you stop imagining that with a little more effort, with a little more gusto, you can crack this. You extend grace to yourself when you look at yourself from the outside and take a moment to chuckle about how obsessive you are, how insane you are.
But most of all, you extend grace to yourself when you remember that everything will be okay whether you succeed or not.