Photo courtesy of Amy Julia Becker
Amy Julia Becker: It's no mistake, Penny is perfect
The author of ‘A Good and Perfect Gift’ talks about rethinking perfection and other lessons she’s learning from Penny, her daughter with Down syndrome.
February 7, 2012 | Amy Julia Becker always knew she was a classic perfectionist. To her, perfection was about things that could not be improved upon, that could never break down.
But six years ago, when her daughter Penny was born, Becker had to rethink perfection -- and much else that she had built her life upon.
“A family who has a child with Down syndrome is antithetical to the idea of the perfect family in America,” said Becker, the author of “A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny.”
From Penny, Becker learned about a different kind of perfection, one rooted in telos -- in wholeness and completion.
“That is a type of perfection that I can want for myself and my family, because it is a perfection that allows for weakness, for dependence on other people, for need and for giving and growing,” Becker said.
It’s just one of the many lessons that church leaders can learn from Penny and other people with disabilities, she said.
Becker is a graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary and blogs regularly for Patheos at Thin Places. In addition to “A Good and Perfect Gift,” named one of the top 10 religion books of 2011 by Publishers Weekly, Becker is also the author of “Penelope Ayers: A Memoir.”
She spoke with Faith & Leadership about “A Good and Perfect Gift” and how Penny has changed her and her faith. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: “A Good and Perfect Gift” covers basically the first couple of years of your daughter Penny’s life. Give us an update. How is she doing?
She’s doing very well. She is 6. She goes to kindergarten and is in an integrated classroom, so she’s with a group of typically developing peers and has a great time. She’s learning to read and write, and she’s a wonderful big sister to her brother, William, who’s 3, and her sister, Marilee, who is a year old.
Q: The book is at least ostensibly about Penny, but in many ways it’s about you and how Penny changed you. Tell us about that.
It is more about me than Penny. The book is about realizing that although we had not been given the daughter we expected, we had been given the daughter we wanted. There was a long progression for me -- spiritually, emotionally and intellectually -- after Penny was diagnosed with Down syndrome.
I had to confront some ugly truths about myself and what and who I valued and why. I really did have an implicit understanding that education and intellect were more valuable than anything else that makes someone human. I wouldn’t have said that I believed that, but I discovered that that was true about me.
So I had to confront that and recognize that what I had believed was not in fact true, which in the end was freeing and life-giving. It allowed me not only to receive our daughter as a gift but also to receive many other people who are different from me in a variety of ways and to recognize the value that they have as human beings created in God’s image.
One of my joys and challenges is encountering people and looking not only for what I have to offer them but also what they have that I need. That’s been transformative not only in terms of accepting and embracing our daughter but in transforming my whole view of the world and of how God works through people.
Q: One of the most powerful lines in the book is in the section about Penny’s baptism, where you write: “I was wrong. For so much of my life, I valued the wrong things or I valued them in the wrong way.”
I realized it wasn’t wrong for me to enjoy reading and writing and learning. I’ve always been a bookworm and someone who loves school, and that’s fine. But it is wrong if I think that that is how everyone else should be and the most important thing in life.
It’s not fine if I keep that as a measuring rod for other people or as an ultimate value instead of a deeper understanding of what it means to love and receive love from one another.
In our culture, it is easy to create an identity based upon intellect or financial success or power. But if our identity is grounded in those things, we’re going to find ourselves failing at some point. We’re never going to be able to live up to our own standards, and at a certain point, we’re literally not going to be able to continue to accomplish those goals.
But if our identity is based upon love, on the fact that God loves us for who we are, apart from what we do, then we can explore the things we love and find a deeper enjoyment from them.
Q: Closely related, of course, is the notion of perfection, which also runs throughout the book, even in the title. What did Penny teach you about perfection?
A lot. I have known for most of my life that I’m a classic perfectionist. I would have said as a Christian that I shouldn’t try to be a perfectionist, but I still had some sense of what the perfect Christian would be -- über-spiritual, able to interact with God independently, all on my own, rather than having a relationship with God that inherently includes vulnerability and a need for God and other people.
Having Penny, this baby who by the standards of our culture would never have been deemed perfect -- and yet recognizing the ways in which she was so similar to me and to every other baby -- made me rethink perfection.
I write in the book about a moment when a student called us the perfect family. A family who has a child with Down syndrome is antithetical to the idea of the perfect family in America.
Later, I remembered that verse from Matthew 5 where Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I looked up the word and saw that in Greek, “perfect” comes from telos, which really means wholeness and completion more than perfection.
When I think of perfection, I think of something that can’t be improved or ever break down, like a perfect car. I think of it more in production terms and not in terms of wholeness, completion.
So “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” -- thinking about that in terms of being who you are created to be -- means to be one who is becoming whole, complete, mature.
That is a type of perfection that I can want for myself and my family, because it is a perfection that allows for weakness, for dependence on other people, for need and for giving and growing.
Having that new understanding of perfection, both for Penny but also for me, has changed me and helped me recognize that I do have limitations and I need to pay attention to them.