Hello, dear ones, and (for me), good morning –
So there’s this thing I’ve been noodling on. In some ways, it’s not new at all, I’ve written about it here before, and the noodling is not even new. It’s something I return to again and again in my heart, words, and actions.
That something is perfectionism. But perfectionism from a slightly different angle than I’ve written before. And this edition of Reflections genuinely deserves a content warning, simply because it refers to some of the ugliest realities of life in the United States.
At any rate, I was preaching, and I paraphrased an important statement from our comrade, Rev. Theresa Soto: It is more important to interrupt harm than to be polite.
I also said, over the course of my sermon, “Friends, it is more important to try than to be right.”
These two affirmations are related. Why?
Because I am telling you now, perfectionism is – well, part of me wants to say, “A tool of the Devil.” But since I don’t believe in the Devil, and since even if I did, my theology would overrun him entirely, and since really what I mean is something else, I should say that something else.
Perfectionism is a tool of the status quo, and therefore of oppression, white supremacy, and evil.
The status quo is a condition in which Black people die and/or are murdered at astonishing rates. The status quo is a condition in which families are separated, parents from children, at the US southern border and where agents of humanitarian aid are arrested, shackled in courtrooms, and convicted of the crime of leaving water in the desert. The status quo is a condition where the rapists of teenage (and younger) girls are released based on time served, when that time has been all of a few weeks. The status quo is a condition where people with disabilities are wildly more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other members of the general population. The status quo is a condition where birth control and healthy sexual education are withheld from those who could get pregnant (and these are the aids which most help lower rates of abortion), while rights to safe, legal, and accessible abortion are under direct, coordinated, and terrifying attack.
The status quo is full of terror.
And when we give into perfectionism, we give in to the status quo.
What do I mean by that?
Well, far too often, and this is especially true for white people, and I daresay, for white women, we allow ourselves to be stopped in our tracks by perfectionism. We simply don’t move. We don’t dare. We don’t take our own will into our hands and use it. We are afraid of disturbing the peace when the peace has already been broken by someone else causing harm, whether by outright prejudice or violence, or by microaggression.
We are so afraid of being wrong that we don’t dare do anything at all.
One way of being “wrong” is what I mentioned above: “Breaking the peace.” “Causing a scene.” “Ruining” the dinner table conversation at a holiday.
But these things—”causing a scene,” “ruining the conversation,” and “breaking the peace”—are all ways in which we respond to oppression. They are all ways in which we can literally interrupt harm. Harm done by thoughts. Harm done by words. Harm done by votes. Harm done by all kinds of actions.
It is more important to interrupt harm than it is to be polite, Rev. Theresa has taught me.
And it is more important to try than to be right. And politeness, which should not be seen as a measure of rightness, but nonetheless is, is certainly less important than trying..
In an influential interview, Adrienne Maree Brown speaks to trying and failing, ‘Even when we make mistakes, harm each other, lose our way, we are worthy….Learn to apologize. A proper apology is rooted in this worthiness – “I was at my worst. Even at my worst, I am worthy, so I will grow.”’
Apology is what can follow on the heels of trying and not hitting the mark. Apology is what we offer when we genuinely believe in our own worthiness and that of others. Apology is our own commitment to ourselves, not only to those we have harmed, that we are worthy enough to be open to new ideas and therefore to grow, to change.
I have to apologize a lot. I am a recovering perfectionist.
Writing Reflections is one way that I recover. I can’t hit it out of the park every week; I just can’t. And I can’t write something that strikes a significant chord/cord (the musician in me can’t resist, and neither can the priestess) for everyone every week. Some weeks I don’t feel inspired at all, and I take two naps the day my writing is due, and pray that rest and renewal will wake up the genius (that little spirit person who helps artists to do their work) and allow me to face the blank page.
Accepting that I have various disabilities is another way that I recover. I can’t do everything I want to do, and when I try or when I believe that “any normal person could do this,” I suffer, and so do those closest to me. Asking for accommodation, being clear about what I need, and disappointing people if they won’t (or believe they can’t….hmph) make spaces accessible to me are spiritual practices.
Acknowledging that the last six years have taken a cumulative toll on my body and overall health is also a way in which I recover. Pulmonary emboli (life-threatening), followed by antibiotic-resistant deep skin infection (life-threatening), followed by severe anemia and surgery (life-threatening, in the sense that invasive surgical procedures always are), suicidal depression (obviously life-threatening), and then more than a year of hives (briefly believed to be life-threatening when I ended up in the ER, had 150 mg of Benadryl in my system and still was massively swollen up from face to feet)…accepting that all these things have been not just one assault after another, but a cumulative string of insults to my health is a way I recover from perfectionism. Understanding more and more deeply that it will take several, even many years for my body to gain the strength and stamina it once had—more insisting on my own worthiness, more recovery from perfectionism.
And trying to interrupt harm where I see it is of course another way of recovering from perfectionism. It puts me in the way of screwing up, saying the wrong thing, fracturing relationships, staying strong in the face of further harmful behavior. When I let go of perfectionism in the act of trying to interrupt hard, I find we must learn the art of apology because I’m rooted in knowing I’m worthy, I’m rooted in bravery, and I’m rooted in commitment.
Just typing, “I’m rooted in bravery, and I’m rooted in commitment” feels dangerous. It feels like hubris—the pride that the gods strike down. Or at least that get me angry emails.
But these things, bravery and commitment, are what I hope for. And because I am worthy, when I miss the mark, I can risk apology.
So today, dearest, I encourage you, if you struggle with perfectionism, to take a risk. Risk being wrong. Risk someone <<I gasp and shudder in fear>> getting angry with you. Risk someone you care about, someone you really love, disagreeing with you. Risk trying to interrupt harm and inadvertently causing more.
Risk, and in the risking, grow. Know that you will become more skillful. Know that you will become a presence that brings healing where it is most needed. Know that you will become a presence people on the margins will trust. Know that you will become a presence that creates a container where others know they can be brave and that you will respond to their vulnerability with respect and care.
Let us risk, beloveds. And let us support one another’s risking.
I love you.
PS – I just. Could. Not. Resist. The above is the first blooming rose from the garden outside my window. The first of the roses to turn down its protective leaves and dare to start to unfurl in earnest. Perhaps some helpful metaphors there. Perhaps just beauty and the glory of Earth’s reckless gifts.