Perfectionism is the stun gun of the ego. Like one of those terrible low budget sci-fi tv shows from the sixties where someone gets a fluorescent blue blast from a ridiculous looking gun thingy and freezes in place. Perfectionism is the great paralyzer -- it whispers in my ear “why even try? You’ll just screw it up again.” It sounds so reasonable, so wise, even kind -- “I am just trying to protect you.” And if somehow I decide to defy the voice of authority and try whatever it is; if it doesn’t turn out the way I planned, perfectionism says in a slightly louder patronizing tone, “See, I told you so….”
This morning after I read my friend Valley’s essay on perfectionism, coincidentally, my husband showed me a video and read an accompanying piece from the New York Times about an assistant teacher who had surreptitiously filmed an incident in the classroom where she worked. The clip showed the lead teacher berating and shaming a child in front of the rest of the class. The teacher tore up the child’s paper, threw it at the kid and said in a loud, angry voice, “it infuriates me when you do not follow instructions.” This was in a first grade class -- six and seven year olds. Apparently this “approach” is endorsed by the school which part of a private school chain called “Success Academy”.
All I could think at first was, “Wow, just wow -- have we not learned anything at all about how to treat kids? Do people really think that child abuse creates success?” How tempting it can be to lay the blame for my own perfectionism at the feet of my parents or a couple of mean teachers, but this story and so many others (along with every advertisement known to humankind) show me that perfectionism is the beast that lurks in the big societal forrest, teeth sharp and glistening, thirsting for blood. Whether we are dressing toddlers up like twenty year old models and entering them in beauty pageants or convincing ourselves that sporting events that create traumatic brain injuries are just good, clean competitive fun -- it all shows how perfectionism runs rampant in our culture. It’s insistent, insidious growl says, “You are not enough -- you will never be enough…” So we drink, eat, shop, shoot up, hook up, binge watch, don’t eat, purge, gamble, or work -- name your poison-- anything to quiet that voice. And when it doesn’t work, we shame and blame ourselves and /or others and the whole sad loop goes round and round again.
It doesn’t help that religion chimes in on the chorus. My own tradition tells me that Jesus said, “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect” in the Gospel of Matthew. Later on he says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Christ Almighty! We sure as hell are going to need to rest if we are trying to be perfect like God, or at least if we believe that God is some perfect white bearded sky daddy in a heaven up there somewhere in a galaxy far, far away. But what if that isn’t who God is at all? What if God is the creative energy inhabiting all life? What if God is inside us and outside us, surrounding us, embracing us? What if God is always trying something new, not to improve anything, or to show off or to earn another gold star in her/his celestial crown, but just because that’s what God does?
What if being perfect means exactly as you are and I am in this moment right now and heaven is falling into the grace of knowing that and feeling grateful for every joy and sorrow, every pratfall and every mistake? What if forgiveness is never ending -- not a done deal, one time offer but an invitation to leave the paralysis of perfectionism behind? What if life is an invitation to dance, a spinning laughing punchy dance? What if we were created to laugh, cry, belch, fart, sing, stumble, run, waltz, leap, fall, wet our pants, smile, breathe and fill with gratitude for it all? What if God really is love and if we are created in God’s image, then we are too? I know there are holes in my theology -- bad shit happens everywhere, all the time it seems. But what if we stopped being so afraid of being imperfect? Would we have less need to grab everything for ourselves, to condemn and starve and pollute and shun and kill ourselves and each other? I don’t know, but it seems like it might be worth a try. If it doesn’t work, someone can say, “I told you so….”
Denise Bennett is a storyteller, musician, writer, wife, lay chaplain at a retirement community, teacher, retreat leader, mother, staff member for 6 cats and grand-dog babysitter, friend, daughter and sister. She does some of these things better and more often than others.