First, and last – Going into the Dark is next Saturday! If you have any single question, please ask me – we only have six days of registration left!
Second, if you’re new here, welcome! Take a few minutes to read what is below and feel free to reply if you like with whatever this correspondence surfaces in your heart that you’d like to share.
What follows is a bit of a reprise of a 2017 post, updated for this week. (I mention this because many of you will be sure to notice that Paul and Mary are no longer the judges of the Great British Baking Show! They are, of course, Paul and Prue. Still those piercing blue eyes and uncompromising posture of Paul Hollywood, but new and fabulous jewelry on his counterpart!)
As many of us are going to continue to be among family this month, I have been thinking, as I often do, about perfection, perfectionism, and excellence. Not all of us associate these things with family, but many of us do.
I have been thinking about how some of us have families where we’ve felt we could never measure up, could never make parents happy, live up to other siblings’ accomplishments or praise, or are constantly criticized.
Either our grades were never good enough—or we believed they weren’t… Or our bodies aren’t healthy enough—or we believe they aren’t… Or our families didn’t support us enough—or we have believed they haven’t.
In other words, we’ve grown, or tried to grow, in environments where things have felt impossible. After all, perfection is not possible—or is it?—in this life.
It all depends on what you mean by perfection.
So what is perfection, anyway?
I’ve been watching The Great British Baking Show, and there’s a lot of talk about perfection on that show. “We need to see a perfect rise,” “We need to see perfect layers,” “It must be absolute perfection.” Paul and Mary, the judges, must say the word “perfection” more than they do any other word, besides “bake.”
But what is perfection?
Is it uniformity? The “perfect” arrangement of little bubbles in the bread? The cookies (biscuits!) all the same color, with all the same snap or crunch? Maybe in baking, but in life? Boooooooooooring.
Is it conformity to an ideal? Maybe in Plato’s Cave, but in everyday life? Nope.
One person’s perfection is another person’s sterility. One person’s ideal is another person’s horror.
I’m here to tell you that there is no perfect student. (Every one of us has wanted to do better at some time.) There is no perfect body. (Take that in—the ideal you’re been striving for or hope to find in 2020 does not exist.) There isn’t even any perfect love. (Every parent, even the most loving one, has fallen down on the job at some point. I’m not talking about abuse or neglect. Just garden variety imperfection.)
And then there’s perfectionism. Perfectionism is a plague upon the earth, I’m convinced.
Sure, I do strive for excellence. Excellent writing, excellent ritual, excellent cooking (even baking on occasion—2019’s cranberry pie is calling my name), excellent preaching…there are things that really matter to me, and for which I stretch myself to attain my “personal best.”
Sometimes I miss. Sometimes, for example, I send an email that strikes a strange chord and some of you are good enough to tell me. And so I try harder next time. Or sometimes Reflections doesn’t go out at all because I just can’t get there. I just can’t find the “genius,” as the Romans would say, the spirit of inspiration, to dare to send something out to all of you. (In other words, sometimes I let fear get the better of me…but we’ll come to that.)
Sometimes I have a spiritual accompaniment session that feels not quite right, that I have not listened with the depth and empathy that I hope to bring to every meeting. And so I endeavor to settle myself, to perceive the presence of the Spirit moving in our lives, and to listen better next time.
Still striving for authenticity, integrity, compassion, wisdom, and love. Often missing the mark, but not giving up.
Guess what! It’s about gentle persistence! (How do I always get here??) It’s about not letting fear get the better of us. It’s about humility. It’s about recognizing that nothing we have is our very own. Nothing. Everything we have has been grown in us by an irreducibly complex web of interdependence.
So how are excellence and perfection different? For one thing, of course, it’s about gentleness.
For the other, I can only answer from my own experience. If you know a parable, a story from real or mythic life, I’d LOVE to hear it; please reply and let me know.
The answer to perfectionism is attending to joy. When do we feel joy in the things that we want to be truly excellent? When do we experience in our bones that we’re doing something we’re supposed to be doing? How can we look at things differently so that joy comes from what we’re doing?
Joy that is humble, persistent, and does not think of itself, but is simply immersed in the work. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Joy is an infallible sign of the presence of God,” and I believe him, so I seek joy wherever I can find it. I often find it in “flow.”
There is delight in achieving flow, the state in which one is “invisible to oneself,” while making rituals, preaching, writing, running, cycling, baking, cleaning. There is a kind of ease—even when it leads to exhaustion—that comes when we are doing something well, something we love, something that stretches our abilities.
There is nothing wrong with doing things well. There is nothing wrong with practicing for hours and hours and hours to hone talent into skill. I have read that to achieve true virtuosity, true mastery, it takes 10,000 hours of practice. And not every one of those hours will be one of joy, certainly, but I find it helps if joy is what underlies how we spend the time we have.
What pains me to see is punishment for not being perfect. Punishment of our children. Our peers. Ourselves. And undue criticism is unkind, harsh, and punitive.
Punishment is implicit in perfectionism. If it (whatever “it” is) isn’t perfect (whatever “perfect” is), then the “performer” is less than perfect themselves. And that, my dears, is the big lie.
The only thing we need to be is human. Just as a tree, however it is shaped or “misshapen” by the elements and its environment, only has the task of being a tree, so we need to be human. Just as a mountain is a mountain or a honeybee a member of its hive, we are simply, perfectly human.
Thanks to Rev. Theresa Soto (Note: check out their new book of poetic meditations, Spilling the Light from Skinner House Press!), I am learning this lesson more and more all the time. The only thing you need to be is human. Therefore, you are already just as perfect as you need to be.
No matter how strong or quick you are. No matter what your body looks like or can or can’t do. No matter what your ostensible “intelligence quotient” is (just a bogus measure, anyway!). No matter how well you did in a competition or a ritual.
You have been called into this life to be human. You are doing that. You are perfectly human. Perfectly, gloriously human.
I believe that’s what is meant in the Psalm, “O, I am wondrously, fearfully made…” We are indeed made in the image of God/dess, as we also make Them in our own images.
Wondrous. Fearsome. Perfect.
Congratulations, you improbably wondrous, powerfully fearsome, gloriously perfect being!
PS – If the holidays are a season of delight for you, even if your glittering tree is already up and giving you joy, I invite you to come with us into the dark this coming Saturday, 14 December. Going into the Dark will be for those of us who love the dark time of the year, as well as for those of us who find it difficult or even wrenching. We will support one another with tenderness. Find our gifts in where the light shines in the darkness, and seek them in the darkness itself. And we will have a simply lovely time. I invite you to join us, and to respond to this email if you have any questions at all – at all – about the event.
See you there!