You do not have to quit your job and move to a cabin in the mountains in order to live a simpler, happier life. All you need to do is train yourself to find the beauty in the ordinary, present moment. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, yes and no. In Shauna Niequist’s new book, Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living, she reflects on her rude awakening from the mythical American dream. Where was the happily ever after that so many children’s books had promised? Why can’t a job, a family, and a house be enough to equal complete and utter bliss? Perhaps most upsetting is the often unanswered question, “Why, despite what we are conditioned to believe, can’t we truly have it all?”
First, says Niequist, we need to come to terms with the fact that saying ‘No’ is okay. We must set realistic expectations for ourselves, and for those around us. Having ‘Yes’ as a default setting leaves everyone exhausted, both physically and emotionally.
“We disappoint people because we’re limited. We have to accept the idea of our own limitations in order to accept the idea that we’ll disappoint people. I have this much time. I have this much energy. I have this much emotional capacity,” writes Niequist. (Italics Niequist’s.)
Furthermore, take vacations, advises Niequist. This does not mean a month-long jaunt to do a Grand Tour of Europe; instead, it means short weekend trips, or even weeklong getaways that put you close to nature. There is a unique magic in being elsewhere; “it’s away, and away allows us to see the rhythms and dimensions of our lives more clearly.” Whatever you decide, research shows that spending money on experiences, not stuff, increases happiness.
Throughout the book, Niequist charts her journey of rebuilding a more realistic, more manageable version of contentedness, customized to fit her own life. As the title implies, no one is perfect; instead, we are all perfectly imperfect. “Perfect calls to mind stiffness, silicone, an aggressive and unimaginative relentlessness. Perfect and the hunt for it will ruin our lives—that’s for certain.”
Niequist shares moving and deeply personal reflections on motherhood, marriage, and her faith, all of which offer support, purpose, and, sometimes, anxiety and stress. And that’s okay, she says, because balance is beautiful and without the downs it would be difficult for us to truly appreciate the ups in life.
Perhaps one of the most important themes in Niequist’s book is to simply Let Go. Let go of the need to control every detail, let go of the illusory ideal of the American Dream, let go of the need to please everyone else, and, of course, let go of rumination, pain, and anger. Ruminating on past failures, near misses, and regrets adds fuel to the fires of depression. In order to more fully appreciate the present, we need to clear away the past. “Of all the things I’m learning to leave behind,” says Niequist, “one of the heaviest is the opinion of others…it devolved into care-taking and people-pleasing at the expense of my own self.”
There is a theme of silence throughout Present Over Perfect, but in this context silence does not mean failure to speak. Silence is something that is carried within; a state of living in the world that contemplative therapists might call mindful awareness or direct perception. In other words, this is a way of seeing the beauty in each moment, no matter how mundane, and accepting that those small, ordinary moments are the ones that compose the bulk of our lives. Although Niequist approaches the topic of being present from a Christian worldview, her message spans spiritual and religious boundaries and speaks to something uniquely human in all of us — the desire to feel at peace in our lives.
At the moment, there is no shortage of books on mindfulness, being present, and simple living. Niequist offers readers a beautifully written, near confessional look at one woman’s journey from noise to silence. Her personal experiences as an affluent mother and wife may not appeal to everyone, but there are certain messages about contentedness and the need to speak our truth in her book that will resonate with any audience.
Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living
Zondervan, August 2016
Hardcover, 240 pages