Perfection, Not Progress?

I’ve been hearing a word being thrown around a lot lately and it’s also been used towards me (in the vein of me needing to let go of it) so I’ve given this a bit of thought. The word is perfectionism.  Here are some of my unpolished thoughts:

1. You’re probably not a perfectionist and neither am I. I have not met many people who are true perfectionists. Probably can count them on 2 fingers.  I have, however, met plenty of people who say they are perfectionists. Some of these people even wear perfectionism like a badge of honor that gives them special privileges to be a certain way. I can attest to this latter group that there are no real perfectionists there. Sure, they may have some perfectionistic tendencies but most of the time I see people using that as an excuse to justify their behaviors rather than describe a true state of being. Real perfectionists do not rest and nothing is ever good enough. Real perfectionists sacrifice a ridiculous amount of their lives to try to achieve that state of perfection.  The irony is that perfectionists rarely (or never) admit that they are perfectionists because in their minds perfection cannot be achieved. Ever.

2. Perfectionism is not it. We don’t behave in perfectionistic ways because we’re perfectionists at our core. Those tendencies come from some place much deeper. For me, it comes largely from a place of fear. I’m afraid of failing. But there’s more. I try to achieve perfection because I’m afraid to fail because if I fail I may not be accepted and loved.  It’s not easy to get there but sometimes (most of the time) it serves our true selves when we’re able to peel away the layers and get to the core of it.  (Maybe we are like ogres after all?) So in that sense, yes, I do need to let go of some of those tendencies. I suspect most people who categorize themselves here have some peeling to do or have been peeling the layers already.

3. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the pursuit of perfection.  I think it can be good when we accept the fact that we cannot be perfect and only when excellence is the end goal. Not acceptance. There is a very fine line between the two so I’m not sure I’m actually able to embody this concept.  But I think it’s a good tension to hold.  Imagine if the inventor of the wheel didn’t pursue perfection or if Mozart settled for mediocrity.  The pursuit of perfection drives humanity forward in many ways onto greater achievements.  There are moments when I have wanted things to be perfect for the benefit of my satisfaction and to serve and love others. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But I need to ask myself if I’m trying so hard for the good or for acceptance. This is where knowing oneself really well comes in pretty handy.

4. In Genesis 1, when God created the heavens and the earth, he saw that “it is good” as opposed to “it is perfect”.  Even if God is perfect, he didn’t create perfect things.  Let’s ponder that.  It boggles my mind… even GOD didn’t make things perfect. He built imperfection into the world, and into humanity.  I know this is getting heavy and some theologians may disagree but that’s how I see it.  Perfection is not God’s plan.  Union is.  Here’s how Richard Rohr puts it:

The path of union is different than the path of perfection. Perfection gives the impression that by effort I can achieve wholeness separate from God, from anyone else, or from connection to the Whole. It appeals to our individualism and our ego. It’s amazing how much of Christian history sent us on a self-defeating course toward private perfection.  Union is instead about forgiveness, integration, patience, and compassion.  The experience of union creates a very different kind of person.

I want God and Christianity and life to be about perfection.  That makes it easier – give me a bunch of rules to follow, prayers to pray, songs to sing.  Tell me who God is and that I’m going to heaven.  Prescribe how to live a good life and I’ll go on my merry way.  But it just isn’t like that.  Maybe that works for a few years and maybe it’s even necessary in the beginning, but ultimately, God is about union.  He is about Wholeness.  And that is a much more difficult journey to take.  It’s not clear sometimes (or a lot of times), and it’s heartbreaking and sometimes even humiliating.  But I believe this is where we can truly begin to experience the good that God was referring to in Genesis 1.  And to me, THAT is worth pursuing.

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2 thoughts on “Perfection, Not Progress?

  1. That definition of what it means to be a perfectionist sets a pretty high bar…perhaps ironically so? I don’t think I could necessarily pass that test.

    I used to think that I couldn’t be a perfectionist because I wasn’t good enough and made too many mistakes, haha.

    For myself, perfectionism doesn’t rule all aspects of my life, or rob me of the ability to ever rest. But there are certain areas and seasons in my life where the desire for perfection has definitely robbed me of at least some rest, or has been tied in with great anxiety or fear, making it challenging for me to take action.

    …and these can coexist with other areas and seasons of my life where I completely lack discipline or conviction to strive for perfection or even excellence or goodness. But those perfectionist areas are still very real, nonetheless.

    Strangely, I find comfort in accepting that there are areas of my life that are ruled by perfectionism. Identifying them brings me awareness that helps me let go and find room for grace and mercy for myself.

    • That’s a great point, Patrick, that the pursuit of perfection can exist in some areas of our lives and not others. Sounds like you’ve done some thinking through on this topic. Thanks for stopping by!

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