Q+A: Why Letting the Dishes Go Can Save Your Soul
Almost ten years ago, Shauna Niequist published Cold Tangerines, a tender, transparent book about “the extraordinary moments hidden in our everyday lives.” In her latest book, Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living (Zondervan), Niequist finds herself wiped out, overworked, and fighting to regain long-lost tranquility. “This book is an account of my winding, messy journey from exhaustion to peace, from isolation to connection, from hustling and multitasking to sacred presence,” writes Niequist.
I talked recently with Niequist about “fake resting,” practicing the Sabbath (for real), and how as a teenager her parents freed her from being “the perfect pastor’s kid.” Half an hour into the phone interview, Niequist’s son came running through the door crying after a hard day at school, and she respectfully bowed out of our conversation to tend to his needs. Which is to say, she puts the people in her life before her public image.
This book is her invitation “into that same journey” of reprioritization. “It has been the greatest, most rewarding change of my adult life,” says Niequist.
What was going on in your life when you realized something was wrong?
I was in my mid-30s, and doing a lot of traveling and speaking. I was sprinting through my days. I was exhausted all the time. I was sick and not paying attention to the fact that I was sick. I just kept going and the quality of my life began to diminish pretty dramatically. And it felt like all those things that I had wanted originally—connection, creativity, play, depth—I couldn’t find anymore in my life. I found that multitasking, efficiency, driven-ness, and competition took me really far from where I began. I wanted to live this exciting, full life so badly that my life tipped over.
You talk in your book about fake resting, where you’re puttering around in your pajamas on a Saturday not resting but working. How do you fight the urge to do busy work all the time?
I used to think—“If I have 10 minutes, that’s one more load of laundry I can throw in. If I have 15 minutes, that’s five more emails I can send.” I was always looking for ways to pack minutes with tasks. And now I’m always looking for ways to find little pockets of time and use them for processing and prayer and finding my center again. Instead of going five days in a row screaming through life without even a thought toward anything in my inner world, several times throughout every day, I’ll take just five minutes and ask myself: Am I on track? Am I living according to my values? Am I doing the most important things or just the busiest, most urgent things? Am I tending to my soul in such a way that when my kids get off the bus I’m going to have something to give them? So right now my goal is to be a person who sees people, hears their voices, asks good questions, and devotes herself to the most important things, which are God and people.
I recently read a piece in the Huffington Post titled, “The Dishes Can Wait, and Other Lies.” For many of us, especially those with young children, there are domestic duties that simply can’t be put aside indefinitely. So how do you find that middle ground?
What we call it in our house is “minimum balance living.” I grew up believing that you never let credit card debt accrue month to month, and I believe that financially, but I’m practicing the opposite [with tasks]. And so I look at a day and say, “What are the things that absolutely have to get done or we can’t function as a family?” So this morning, I got up with our kids. I got them waffles. I got their vitamins. That’s about it. I didn’t try to get 15 work emails done, and I didn’t try to get the house cleaned. I wanted to just be with [my kids], because it’s Mac’s last day of preschool. And so I did the minimum balance. What has to be done to get him safely clothed, fed, and out the door? Everything else can wait.
Some days, I do more. Today I will devote several hours to the laundry I haven’t folded this week. I still do all the normal things that most of us do in our lives, but I work really hard to not let those tasks get in the way of deep, meaningful connection with the people I love most.
Eugene Peterson has a lot to say on the subject of the Sabbath, and you quote him in the book as saying that “busyness is an illness of the spirit.” How do you practice Sabbath as a daily mentality?
It’s like Charles Dickens’s quote about the way that you honor Christmas—not by just celebrating it on that day, but by keeping it in your heart all year long. And I feel that same thing about Sabbath. It is about the one day, absolutely, but it’s also about living with a mind and heart toward Sabbath all throughout the week. And one of the things my husband and I try to do is we try to sit outside on the porch at night after the kids go to bed and just be away from our laptops and our iPads and just connect a little bit. So these little moments where we can be outside and alone together are really helpful for us.
For people who only see a curated version of your life on Instagram, do they get the impression that perfection is still the primary goal?
It would surprise me if someone looked at my Instagram and said it felt like perfection. You will almost never find a picture of me on it, and you won’t find that many pictures inside my home, because I’m kind of self-conscious about my appearance and I’m kind of self-conscious about my house. But I’m not self-conscious about how beautiful Lake Michigan is, and I’m not self-conscious about how beautiful watermelon is when you slice it.
When I look at someone else’s Instagram feed, it never occurs to me that I’m getting a 360-degree view of their life. I don’t think Instagram is a great platform for some of the muck and messiness of our interior, behind-the-scenes lives. There is a group of people who get all the stuff—the good, the bad, the ugly, the ridiculous, the terrible about my life—and they’re my friends.
As your kids get older, they’re going to feel the pressure to perform and be perfect. How do you teach them to “trade competition, comparison, and exhaustion”—your words—“for meaning, connection, and unconditional love?”
Glennon Melton is one of my favorite writers and a very good friend, and her whole parenting thing comes down to—were you brave, and were you kind? [Our son] Henry is very smart and gets good grades and gets frustrated with himself when he gets something wrong. And we say, “You know what? I am so glad that you are smart and hardworking, but it’s never the most important thing. The most important thing is that you help the kids in your class who need extra help, that you see people when they’re hurting.” So we’re always trying to change the narrative that excellence isn’t about achievement. It’s about character, and it’s about a way of living.
What’s the spiritual analogue to what you’re talking about? How does performance pressure impact our faith lives and the faith lives of our kids?
I think for those of us who grow up in Christian homes, we either bail on the whole thing, because it all has to be perfect and all has to be a fairytale and you can’t ever color outside the lines, or somehow your parents give you a sense that it’s okay to figure it out on your own, and it’s okay to make mistakes and it’s okay to make a little bit of a mess. And that gives you the elasticity you need on your insides to actually build an adult faith.
What helped me growing up is that my mom had a total faith, personal, everything meltdown when I was a freshman in high school. A visible pastor’s wife stopped going to church for several years and rebuilt her faith right in front of me. It made a really spacious place for my brother and I to be like, “Well, you got questions? Mom had questions. That’s cool.” It took away the “perform-at-all-cost” thing. She just said, “I’m out. I’m not performing. I’m either going to be a real Christian or a real something else, but I’m going to be real about the whole thing.” And that was an incredible example for us.
You grew up as the daughter of a very prominent pastor, Bill Hybels. How did your dad free you from performance pressure?
My parents shielded my brother [Todd] and I from a lot of criticism and let us make a lot of mistakes, even public mistakes. My brother had long hair and didn’t go to youth group, and I had a nose ring and I kept getting in trouble at my little Christian college, and so the elders said [to my dad], “Hey, we hate to bring this up, but people are asking some questions about your kids. What’s up?” And my dad was like, “Nope, that’s not a question. They’re not running for office. They’re not representatives of my ministry. They’re their own human people who get to do stupid stuff, like get lots of tattoos and nose rings and date musicians and get in trouble in college.” It would have been so easy for him to say, “Could you just put on a nice dress and be cool for a little bit?” And he didn’t. He said, “This is who she is, and this is who he is. And they are a part of our community just like every other kid.” And I think that’s what gave Todd and I the space we needed to actually become Christians as adults.
Now that I’m a parent [I think], holy cow, how did you have the restraint and faith to be cool when I was putting you through such ridiculous situations? So [my parents] are rock stars, and I want [my husband and I] to be parents like them. With Henry, who is both a pastor’s kid and pastor’s grandkid, I work really hard to give him a lot of privacy and to let him know: “You are not a representative of your Papa. You’re not a representative of me or Dad. You’re not a tiny professional Christian. You get to work this out on your own.”
What Bible verse have you been praying over or meditating on?
Well, the verse that I’ve been so excited about lately is from 1 Thessalonians 4:7. The Message version says, “God hasn’t invited us into a disorderly, unkempt life but into something holy and beautiful—as beautiful on the inside as the outside.” And that last part of it just kills me. Our lives right now are very image-oriented, Instagram-oriented, and I feel like my journey over the last couple of years has been walking away from that kind of mindset and saying, it’s the stuff on the inside of our lives, the invisible, unseen, non-glamorous—that’s really where the richness of life is.
What regular practices have you implemented to help keep you “grounded in God’s love”?
A regular practice of silence has been both the most difficult and the most transforming. I realized partway through this journey that I thought I just was always too busy to be quiet, and then I was forced to realize that I was consciously keeping myself busy. There were some things that I didn’t want to face. And the biggest thing was that I didn’t feel a deep, thorough sense of God’s unconditional love for me. In the silence was where I had to face how scared I was and how not okay I felt and how anxious I felt. And so the ongoing pursuit of silence started off as a really scary process, but now it’s something I really look forward to and something I really love.
Shauna Niequist is the author of Present Over Perfect, Savor, Bread & Wine, Cold Tangerines, and Bittersweet. Shauna is a bookworm, a beach bum, an enthusiastic home cook and a passionate gatherer of people. She is married to Aaron, and they live in Chicago with their two boys, Henry and Mac. You can connect with her online at ShaunaNiequist.com.