Why “Messy” Could Be the Best Word to Live By This Year

Holi Festival

Photo Credit: Sukanto Debnath (Creative Commons)

Last year, I traded in a New Year’s Resolution for a word. The word was “risky.” I wanted to take more risks, to be courageous, to act a little unreasonable. So, I started this blog and ended up in all sorts of wonderful places I never would have experienced without my Word to guide me.

But on December 14, 2012, I discovered my word for the year had changed.

It was the morning of my birthday and I was backing a minivan full of kids out of the garage to take them to school. It had been a good morning—sweet birthday wishes from the kids, followed by all of them piling into the van without a single fight.

Unfortunately, I forgot I had left our other car parked behind me in the driveway.

The screeching crunch and whiplash reminded me. 

I put the minivan in park and got out. My birthday joy had been replaced by a minivan with a dented rear bumper and a car with a crushed driver’s side door.

Hiding from Failure

Last week, an old friend posted a question to her Facebook wall. She asked, “What things keep you from pursuing the things you are most passionate about?” There were 37 comments and the most common response was, “Fear of failure.” 

Failure is messy: it reveals our weakness and limitations and brokenness. And we are afraid of having our imperfections exposed. We would prefer to cover over our cracks and maintain a seamless facade. Meanwhile, inside, we compare ourselves to those around us—those who appear to have it all together—and we act as our own judge and jury.

Except we don’t hand down a guilty verdict; we hand down a verdict of shame. We equate our failures with a lack of value and the absence of beauty.

And the only reasonable response is to hide, quit, bury, never try, and certainly never risk failure

We become paralyzed by the fear of our own mess.

Laughing at the Mess

I stared at the dent in my car door, and all of my old self-rejection started to well up. How could I be so stupid? What’s wrong with me? How can I get this fixed quickly so I don’t have to feel the shame of my imperfection? But, gratefully, it wasn’t hitting me like a tidal wave. It was more like a slow drip from a sink.

And then my nine-year-old son hung is head out of the van window and shouted, “Daddy, you can hardly notice it. Except for the dent.” His words landed in my heart and I began to laugh right in the middle of my mess.

And that’s when it hit me.

My year of risk had worked something into my bones. It didn’t teach me I can handle anything or conquer all fear or come closer to perfection. It taught me this: I’m a mess, and that is completely okay. In fact, I learned grace and joy collide right in the middle of our messiest places, and they give birth to beauty in the midst of our mess.

Messy had become my word for the year.

So my laughter gave way to a thought, “I’m keeping it. I’m keeping this dent as a reminder that I’m messy and life is messy and embracing that reality is joy and beauty and belovedness.” And we need that reminder, don’t we?

It can be so easy to forget.

I Wonder…

I wonder if you have a dent or two that you keep beating yourself up for? I wonder if you have nicks and scratches you are trying to cover up or are desperate to repair?

I wonder what would happen if we made “messy” our word for the year?

I wonder what kind of freedom we would feel if we let Grace transform our mess into something beautiful. 

I wonder how long our fear and shame could withstand the brilliant light of a messy Grace. 

I wonder what our days would look like if we began populating them with people who embrace our mess with us.

I wonder what our world would look like if we quit shaming each other for our messes and instead, looked each other in the eye and said, “I know, me too, I’m messy in my own way.”

I wonder what our lives would look like if our embraced and embodied word of the year was one loud, joyful exclamation:

“Messy!”

Questions: What would you do this year if you embraced your mess and let go of your fear of failure? Share your idea in the comments sections at the bottom of this post.

Dear Reader, My new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is a call to live within the messiness of marriage in a rebellious, redemptive way. There are two ways to get a copy. New blog subscribers will receive a free PDF copy. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Second, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

PreviewThe working title for this Friday’s post, “Why Grace is Free and We Still Don’t Buy It.”

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Kim

    Yes! When I read your last post, I thought that, looking back, my word for last year might have been Grace. Reading this, I realize that it was, without a doubt, Messy. But honestly, I’m starting to believe they are the exact. same. thing. I needed this today.

    • drkellyflanagan

      It does feel like they are connected somehow. Like they need each other!

  • Deborah Suess Weaver

    We don’t hand down a guilty verdict, we hand down a verdict of shame…….WOW! Exactly.

  • Jennifer Newell

    You are so right when you say, “we compare ourselves to those around us- those who appear to have it all together-and we act as our own judge and jury.” We can be pretty harsh to ourselves as well. “We equate our failures with the lack of value and absence of beauty.” I think you said it perfectly. Why is it we are so hard on ourselves when in reality we are all just trying our best in the crazy world we live in?

    I almost think I need to take a sticky note and put the words, “I’m a mess, and that is completely okay.” Then I should stick it on the mirror to see first thing in the morning or on my computer at work, as a reminder it is okay to not have it all together. It is not a failing to have a messy life where things don’t always go as planned.

    This year I am trying hard to embrace the mess of my life and in the process I hope to let go of all the expectations and instead embrace whatever comes our way. I want to become a little bit less like Martha and a lot more like Mary enjoying the company of my family and friends. I think when you embrace the confusion and imperfection you allow yourself to be more real. In the end I think by doing this will be living my word for this year and therefore I will become HEALTHY.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jenn, I think you’re right on. Somehow, allowing ourselves to be messy paves the way for us to be healthier. Counterintuitive, but completely true.

  • Candice Marquette

    I would probably finish the worlds worst book and then tackle the ugliest scarf….took my first crochet class and that skill is harder that I could have imagined. It’s ok, I’ll find a good editor for the novel and maybe the ugly scarf will start a new trend, it worked for mismatched socks.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Candice, you made me laugh out loud. Thank you! And finish the book and scarf, okay? : )

  • Cherrie Dudash

    As always you hit it right on the nose! My life IS messy, has always been messy and will continue to be messy! And I’m okay with that! I realized long ago that things don’t happen as I’d like them to be, they just happen. I’m willing to live with that too! I guess the perfect word is “Messy”. =)

  • Amy B.

    I wouldn’t be so scared. I’d have the courage and the energy to pursue people. I’d probably find the freedom to stop numbing that nameless itch/pain inside with stupid TV and shopping obsessions and control. I’d say yes more, to my family. To my Lord. I’d become safe for others.

    After that, who knows? That would be an enormous start.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Gutsiest comment I’ve ever read. Thanks for your courage Amy, may it serve you well on your journey.

  • Lisa Bartelt

    “I’m a mess and that’s completely okay.” Why do we forget that so easily? I’m often frustrated by the lack of okay-ness from other people when they see my mess. If I’m crying in church or I’m totally stressed out because life is crazy. Not everyone is like this, but enough that I want to hide my mess. I saw a comic recently where a garbage can had been placed outside the entrance to a church sanctuary with a sign that said, “Leave your garbage at the door.” And a person approaching asked, “I wonder if they mean this literally or figuratively.” Or something along those lines. We unintentionally ask people to leave their garbage at the door in lots of settings, I think. How much better off would we all be if we embraced our mess, told other people about our mess and let them show us theirs, too. Once again, thanks. I’m catching up on past posts and I’m sorry I missed them earlier!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hi Lisa! Good to reconnect with you this way after all these years. 🙂 I’m right there with you on this. I sense that people want us to hide our messes because it feels too much like a mirror. By asking us to hide ours, they are really working to hide their own. I think it’s one of the reasons Grace is so important: it’s permission to be messy! Thanks for reading and commenting: keep the thoughts coming!

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