I brought a small lucky bamboo plant home with me for Christmas. It’s part of a small collection of succulents on my desk, none of which are doing too hot. This bamboo resurrected itself towards the end of the summer but recently has been yellowing. I thought I’d bring it to my parents’ house in the hopes that the sunnier climate and proximity to still-living plants might help it recover enough to make it through the rest of a Michigan winter. My mom has a peace lily that’s been thriving since their realtor gave it to them as a housewarming gift… twenty-six years ago. I’ve been here for two weeks but can’t tell if there’s been any changes for the better in mine.
The other day I visited a friend from high school living a city over. I got a tour of her new place and she pointed out the trees in the yard that she rescued from kudzu. Her nightstand and dresser were uncluttered and the storage area in her basement held two polite boxes. My backyard has a stack of clay pots sitting exactly where they were left when a roommate moved out in August. My nightstand and dresser hold all sorts of sporadic mess and my basement has a growing pile of who-knows-what that continuously invokes dread of an inevitable moving day.
I know that keeping plants alive and being tidy aren’t moral achievements, but sometimes I let myself feel that way. My mom is certainly not putting any standard of that sort on me and she’s had plants die before they were old enough to vote, but of course that’s not what I focus on. For whatever reason, I give moral weight to things that don’t deserve it.
I catch myself viewing many versions of falling short as un-rightness. And then it’s a short jump to unrighteousness. When I struggle to take care of plants or don’t eat that broccoli in the fridge before it goes bad, I feel like I’m not very good at being a person. And then maybe I’m not a very good person.
When I stop to ask myself if these things really hold the significance I give them, I can say of course not. It can’t be the case that all inadequacies are failures—we’re not all going to be good at art or music or understanding tax law and that’s okay. I don’t need to invent standards to hold myself to. And even if the health of my plants was an indication of anything very important, surely I shouldn’t compare myself to my mom who has been taking care of them for longer than I’ve been alive (literally, in the case of the lily).
But at the same time, there could be some virtue-related issues beneath these struggles. What’s going on in my heart when I keep putting off doing the dishes or responding to that email? What am I valuing most (and maybe improperly) when I don’t take care of my room or my things, when I don’t exercise or read a book or wake up early?
Is it sinful to not do things that are good?
Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit and getting enough sleep helps us be better roommates and citizens so in some ways the standards of responsibility that I see myself as falling short of could be valid. But when are the tasks I categorize as “being responsible” genuinely virtuous and when are they unfounded expectations, met or unmet simply because of different personalities or life experiences or ability to tolerate mess?
There may be an infinite number of variables involved in these questions; what is crucial for one person or one day or one context may not be so for another. That evaluation of what is good and necessary runs through the filters of my gut, brain, conscience, theology, upbringing, and level of energy. I’m sure I don’t always get it right. I need help, by forgiveness for wrong-doing as well as some divine intervention and transformation. I need grace to cover both my failure to meet the standard and my failure to even understand what the standard really is.
Christina Ribbens (’19) graduated with a major in history and minors in studio art and data science. Originally from Virginia, she now lives in Ann Arbor, MI where she works in campus ministry with Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). She has a benevolent dependency on tea, is always down for a game of pick-up basketball, and would love to have you over for pancakes sometime.