I stumbled over a long sentence. I looked up the words I didn’t know on the internet, listened to how they were supposed to be pronounced, and sighed. I started the sentence over again, whispering to myself, trying to get the right intonation so I wouldn’t mess up again and have to repeat it all.
It wasn’t a typical college student’s homework session, but it was what I did nearly every day that semester.
It was my freshman year. I was determined to not make any mistakes I couldn’t easily fix.
That day and many other days, my brain was getting fried to a crisp in literary theory. My professor made us grade ourselves on how engaged we were with our assigned reading homework. Particularly, she wanted us to read every word. I was scared to give myself all the points if I didn’t really read absolutely everything, so I took that requirement to another level, forcing myself to pronounce every word correctly, say each sentence with the proper intonation, and read every heading and page number. I wasn’t comfortable with giving myself full credit unless I felt I had done my work perfectly. It was an obsession I wrestled with constantly. A lot of times I would have to give up for time or sanity’s sake, merely skimming and then giving myself a bad grade.
Battling with the Need to be Perfect
I had always been precise in wanting to follow rules, but now I was especially determined to not mess up on anything. The problem was that I spent way too much time with my homework in a way that didn’t even help me learn it. I was following the letter of the law by making sure I truly read every letter, number, punctuation symbol, and citation. It was a nightmare.
I told myself I was just trying to be good, but really I was just trying not to be bad. I thought that God would rather I struggle through this because He wanted me to be better, and being better meant not making so many mistakes, right?
I was working so hard, so why did I still mess up and feel guilty all the time?
Learning to Dump the Sand
Several years later, I read a devotional by Sister Cheryl A. Esplin that helped me change my perspective. She shared a story of a man who walked across the country and said the hardest part was that sand kept getting in his shoes. She taught:
In our journey in life we too are troubled with sand in our shoes—sand in the form of change, challenges, trials, and temptations. We can either let these things stop us short of our goal or we can find ways to dump the sand from our shoes and continue our journey.(“The Abundant Life” 3 February 2015)
Instead of dumping the sand from my shoes, I was trying to bear it, digging my feet into the gritty grains and letting them get rubbed raw. It’s no wonder I wasn’t accomplishing anything.
Sister Esplin continued:
Wherever we are on our journey, the Savior has made it possible, through His redeeming and enabling power, for us to dump the sand from our shoes. It is up to us to apply these powers in our life and to continue our journey strengthened with hope and faith. Heavenly Father and our Savior want you to succeed.
God didn’t want me to feel what I was feeling. He wanted me to dump my fear of messing up and move on with my homework and my life. By trying to carry all the metaphorical sand in my shoes, I was trying to overcome by myself things I could only overcome with Christ. Yes, I was still responsible for being honest and for doing my homework, but that didn’t mean I had to read every page number “just in case.” God didn’t want me to be cautious for no greater cause than to alleviate my guilt; he wanted me to trust Him and be happy despite making mistakes in my life. If I messed up, He wasn’t going to leave me to try and fix things alone, so there was never really anything to fear.
Growing from Adversity
I made it through that semester, through that class I hated, and served a mission, starting that summer. In the process, I found that seeking to lovingly understand other people, searching the scriptures with an open heart, and trusting in God and in myself makes a difference in how I see God’s judgment of my actions.
Each new semester, I muster the courage to ask professors what their expectations are with readings and with the class, and then I have to trust that God will help me do the assignments right. I am still a slow reader, but I’ve stopped forcing myself to take my reading to an unnecessary level.
Sometimes we may feel like the only thing we can do is to keep trudging along, no matter how heavy our shoes are getting with sand. But the truth is, God is eager for us to pause, take off our shoes for a minute, and, with the Savior’s help, pour out the pain so he can bestow His blessings on us as we journey.