For magic to come through in the performance of a tightrope dancer, he or she requires some amount of tension in their rope, and then to step out off the platform.

Tension is defined as: the act of stretching or straining.

I recently had the opportunity to hear Nadia Bolz-Weber speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing, and I was struck by this statement she made:

So many of us are tormented by the distance between our ideal self and our actual self.”

Like a tightrope dancer, we stand at one end of the rope, palms sweating and knees buckled at the hopes and dreams laid out before us, hanging in the balance. Who are we, and why are we not her across the way, the girl we long to see in the mirror who moves with precision and poise?

My ideal self is a bikini-clad millionaire who can still eat pizza four times a week and stay healthy because she has the time and desire to exercise and to also eat vegetables. She does not have a perma-shorts tan. She’s published a book. My ideal self drinks one less glass of wine every night. She has plenty of time and energy for “entertaining” (I’m looking at you, HGTV). She has no health issues, no chronic pain, and her depression has mysteriously let up. My ideal self has children who are in school every day so she can actually get things done (and so love them better when they’re home). My ideal self is relevant. She owns a yacht. She still has a voracious appetite for good music and writes absolutely every day. My ideal self takes in scripture like it’s oxygen, gets to church every week, showers on a semi-regular basis, and is literally always up for “marital intimacy.”

My actual self on the other hand, well she’s a real card. My actual self is a slightly muffin-topped hundredaire. She brushes her hair once a week, scrambles to keep the fridge stocked for the kids, and is almost always just a little tired and resentful and wearing yesterday’s clothes. She has to manipulate herself into writing by actually sending herself on bi-weekly, self-planned guilt trips. She’s spilling over with uncertainty, feet seemingly glued to the ledge. My actual self drinks one too many glasses of wine (which she knows doesn’t help her depression or her health issues but cut-her-some-freaking-slack!). She would rather read Outlander than the Bible, rather stare at the ceiling than go to church, and long ago substituted “good music” for “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”

Although confessing the distance between these two versions of myself feels raw, I know I’m not alone. 99.9% of our minutes are lived out right in this terrible, gut-wrenching space – like Nadia Bolz-Weber says, between the here but the not yet. And I’m starting to think that’s the point: finding rest in this tension between actual and ideal.

We tend to live like we’re on an airplane waiting for our destination. The waiting part is all oxygen masks and stale pretzels and conversations with people we’d rather not talk to. And the “destination” is pure palm trees and published books and diamond slippers. Until we get there, everything before just seems a means to an end. But maybe – as in the long nine months of pregnancy – it’s this part in the middle, between conception and birth, that counts the most.

The alternative to rest, even through the prickly (verging on soul-crushing) times of tension, is to strive. In striving we worship at the unholy altar of little-l laws, seeking comfort and relief in things that cannot truly give us what we so desperately long for: peace and acceptance. It’s exhausting. I don’t know about you, but I feel like my fingernails might fall off from all of the clawing out and upward. It’s the difference between climbing over a bridge instead of walking across it.

Tension is the worst! Yet it’s the crux of every great narrative. Will he get the girl? Will she save the day? Will he recover with a more profound sense of self? Will she conquer her shorts tan? 250/255 pages of these stories detail the wrestling, the struggle, and the not yet: the careful and calculated and often perilous passage from one place in life to another. And still in real life we’re always running from and at odds with our own grappling, utterly uncomfortable with it.

A divine alchemy happens, and lead becomes gold, somewhere in the dreaded space between. Referencing musician Frank Conroy, Mary Karr says in The Art of Memoir, “That inner blankness or emptiness provides the place where Conroy—a professional jazz pianist when I knew him—could shape ‘music’ or form out of his environment’s painful disorder.” In other words, (as in God speaking creation from nothing into something) in the nothingness, in not having, in longing for, is the unlikely genesis of something tangible and beautiful.

Like a quarterback who sits in the pocket looking for the perfect pass, I can get on board with tension when I realize it’s what points me time and again to the beauty and tangibility of the gospel. There at the peak of my anxiety I ask the big, unbelieving questions: “Where are you God?” “Who am I?” “Are you there?” “I can’t do this anymore.” I stretch. I strain. I crack my knuckles preparing for flight, wanting badly to escape. But after a while comes a still small voice reminding me of the One who came for weary folks like me, stuck in the dry and puffy shells of their actual selves. He says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is near my girl, and you will have your bikinis and pizza. But for now, just dance.”


Leaning into the tension points us to Jesus, the gospel, and its narrative of perpetual and undeserved grace. The gospel means rest from our striving. The gospel means we are relevant in spite of ourselves. The gospel says we will never have to prove our worth again, that we are loved here and now, even as we page through boating magazines in our pajamas with yesterday’s mascara smudged under our eyes. The gospel gives us permission to hand over our self-made yolks, to lightly put one ragged foot in front of the other, and (for the time being) to walk out onto thin air as our actual, broken, yet glorious and image-bearing selves.