Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Is Perfection Too Perfect?

(this is a photo of a painting I did a few years ago, it's a take on Vermeer..who I always thought was the best of perfectionists!)

What is your idea of perfection? Does it deal with what you look like? Does it reflect your home? Does it reflect being like Jesus? Is it measured by the number of kids you have? Is it measured by the number of kids you have that stay active in your religion? Is it measured by how often you can check things off your list? (Took cookies to new neighbor--check. Made sure my kids said all their prayers tonight--check. Made sure that my husband’s suit was pressed for church--check. Made sure I had the house clean when people stopped by--check. Made sure I didn't eat that second piece of pie so I can look attractive--double check.)

Growing up Christian I was always taught that I should strive to be perfect like Jesus. That I should love others, serve others, sacrifice my time and energy for others, follow a set pattern of keeping the ten commandments and setting my sights on a future where my greatest value would lie in being a good wife and mother (one who DID NOT work outside of the home...because that would cause failure INSIDE the home).

These teachings honestly helped me live a good life. I am so grateful for the integrity that I was taught to live by. I am grateful that I gave to charities, that I helped old widows, that I befriend the friendless, that I kept the Sabbath day holy.

These are things I want to continue to do in my life, no matter if I ever enter church doors again, because I believe they do make the world better. What you put out in love and kindness is sure to be returned to you.

But, it's the idea of PERFECTION that has taken its toll. Growing up I was preached an idea of being perfect: One person I needed to be like—Jesus Christ. One place we all needed to end up--Heaven. One way to get there--the straight and narrow path. One way to be--perfect.

This concentration on perfection went awry in me, as I have seen it do in others. By concentrating on this one perfect version of myself, all I saw were my magnified IMPERFECTIONS.

But what is this definition of perfection? If we are ALL different, then how can one idea of perfection satisfy each person? Does God want us to all be clones of each other (of course, you are all going to emphatically shout NO, D'ARCY--of course NOT! But really then, what is this perfect ideal that we humans seem to seek, or believe in, or follow?)

Perfection is a comparative term. Perfect with respect to what? And what would perfection be like? If it’s the same formula for all, then once reached, wouldn’t it be a state beyond which there is no place to go. It would be a static position. No growth. No change. Is this something anyone, including God would want? I don’t think so. It would be sterile and lifeless.

I don’t know if I believe in the idea of perfection anymore.

But if I did, to me, the idea of perfection would be transformed into a principal of constant and eternal struggle, change, progress, and growth. To be perfect is not to reach some final static state but to engage in the infinite struggles and possibilities of life.

The world and ourselves, as they are, are not to be rejected as imperfect. The world and ourselves are as they should be, a living dynamic process for the eternal creation of love, beauty, and meaning.


Sugar said...

That perfect mom check list just gave me shivers... I used to want to be that woman... the one that I imagined I should be. So glad I got over that!

As for seeking to be perfect like Jesus... I think some churches F*k this one up HARD. That's why it's good to land in a church that isn't judgmental and encourages you to come as you are. The truth that SHOULD be taught is that we will NEVER be able to attain Jesus' perfection. It was only through his sacrifice on the cross that we are saved. It's only through the blood of the lamb that we can become perfect. Nothing nothing nothing we DO can ever save us. His sacrifice is our grace... we get in through HIS perfection, not our deeds. Does this give us a pass to be lazy and to never try to be good? No, not that either. There is a balance. If our outward appearance of perfection or our bad habits gets in the way of the relationship with Jesus, then we have veered off course. If we find our satisfaction in being better than everyone else or giving into every pleasure and depravity because we will never be perfect, we failed... miserably.

Makes everything else so simple.

Stina said...

Striving for perfection as a Christian ideal to me contradicts a lesson that I have always grown up with, which is that God loves you just the way you are. Of course, this is not a blank check to do whatever you want, but I think it can be awfully paralyzing to think that you have to be perfect as a goal. I feel like I am expected to do my best and try my hardest to be a good person, but that if I do fall short (ha, if!) that I will still be loved.

Also, I think that striving to be like Jesus/perfect has very little to do with external measures like how neatly your hair is combed or how clean your house is. I'd much rather focus on other aspects of my life to improve such as kindness, generosity and open-mindedness.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora D'Arcy,
I have had some simply amazing talks with ny mom about how women were expected to be "perfect", or really project the image of perfection back in the 50's and 60's. If the washing was not hung out sharp on Monday morning the neighborhood soon began to whisper. She has grown into such a beautiful and amazing woman by growing far beyond all that, and also by letting me try to find my own sense of full fillment and value.
The only time I sense any degree of perfection is in Nature, even then just in fleeting bits of connection that reveal a harmony beyond my understanding. Perfection is beyond me, seeking it is not.
I am not sure if any of this makes sense, I am full of the flu, light headed, off work, and right now these words seem brilliant and meaningful. I may be back to delete later! Kia ora.

Alisa said...

So I had these really weird abstract thoughts while reading your post. One was this really strong feeling that I am an infinite person, with infinite potential to grow. I feel that the idea of perfection is a violent limitation on the infinity of my being. So to put in in a short way: perfection = violence to the soul. I'd go into it more, but that's probably enough of my weirdness for today!

D'Arcy said...

Sugar, I was on that checklist path for a few years, trying to pretend that I could do everything, be everything, and while so many things I did had true value, I found myself being very confused about who I really was and what I really wanted. I think I am starting to find that balance you speak of, how about you?

Stina: I always found those two teaching contradictory too, and I always wondered what the right answer was! That's something we each have to decide for ourselves, and see where we feel comfortable.

I agree about external measures, but I see it so much in suburbia and my friends and family living there that I think it's gotten out of hand. I don't know where that striving to be like Jesus turned into....perfect kids, perfect hair, have everything together, perfect house, perfect marriage, etc. It's a reflection of having that "perfect" goal to attain. Sometimes I feel that these ideas perpetuate looking at children as marketable products instead of real people (and boy, if your child leaves the church and foundation, you must have done something REALLY wrong as a parent!)

Robb, it does make sense. I agree, just watching "The Donna Reed" show or "Leave it To Beaver" completely reflects that attitude, and I think men felt it too, they had to be the perfect providers and the perfect father and have children who were pristine. Today, I think it's the same, only now the woman has to be a power woman, high paying job, clothes with labels, raising kids with one hand and throwing parties with another and running a company with another and do it all being a size 6 (oh wait, 4 is the new 6 right?) etc. Much in the media is reinforcing this idea and I just wish that the human race could get a break!!

Feel Better!!!

Alisa, I think it is beautiful, simple, and it sits well with me. Let's talk more about it over an evening painting!

HappyWifeHappyLife said...

Excellent post, D'Arcy (as always).
And first, let me say, BRAVO on your Vermeer inspired painting. I think it's pretty damn good!

Perfection. Ah, yes. The unattainable (and thus, Most Appealing) state of being....

I have to agree with Sugar. (And Sugar, your comment is very well said...)
As a Christ-follower, I too see far too many churches stress WORKS over FAITH and thereby minimize God's tremendous free gift in his Son Jesus. Perfection is not only an unattainable goal; it's an outright impossibility. We have ALL fallen far short of the mark, and that is why Christ came to set us free from the law. Salvation through Jesus is a FREE GIFT to all - no perfection required! COME AS YOU ARE!

Look back in Jesus' day.... who did he hang out with? The "perfect people" (the cheerleaders and quarterbacks of the time??) Of course not! He hung out with tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers.... basically, the untouchables! The Pharisees (who considered themselves perfect), Jesus tended to avoid... and we all know how much trouble the Pharisees ultimately caused Jesus.

Wrapping it up... the best thing Christians (and non-Christians) can do is FREE themselves from this silly (and completely futile) notion of needing to be perfect. God wants Real, Unique, Whole-Hearted Followers... who are following him by choice.... not because they feel guilty, or are trying to be perfect, or any other reason. Love opens the door, but it is up to the individual to walk through that door.

Now, as far as perfect in "non-spiritual" matters.... I see perfection in a sunset, in a flower, in the laughter of a baby, and in any manner of beautiful, 'naturally occurring' things. Creation is replete with perfection (until we humans come along and mess it up.... but that's another post....)

I think, ultimately, we humans are best served to follow what Jesus said, when he said the whole law is summed up thusly: Love God and love each other.

Really, that's pretty damn close to perfection.... at least as close as we're going to get in THIS life.

jomama said...

i guess in a lot of my comments on your posts i'm saying "i guess that depends on what you mean by ..." but i'm going to have to say it once again.
i think it's important to remember that when we were told "be ye therefore perfect" it wasn't in english that those words were spoken. so one's definition of perfection does become important here.
one of the meanings of perfection is completion, but it can also mean "whole." for me this is a comforting definition of perfect because i go through my life feeling, at times, so empty, so full of holes and gaps, so incomplete.
my definition of perfection isn't, "i'm done, i'm perfect, no more work for me." it's "i'm full, i'm happy, i'm reaching my potential." and that is something i want to strive for.

Boquinha said...

Great painting! Great post! D'Arcy, sometimes it feels like you're in my head uttering my thoughts!!

I've heard it said that the original Greek meaning of that command to be perfect meant to be "whole and complete" and that we all attain that when we are resurrected. So, essentially we can't be perfect yet. And it's okay.

I think it all comes down to 2 laws--love God and love others.

Also, those damn checklists? That used to be me, too. Until I collapsed in a heap of depression personified. Not worth it, my friend. I'm done with that. And we very openly teach our kids the danger in it.

I think ideals are dangerous. I think focusing on listening to our inner compass is healthy. When we focus on being, the doing naturally follows. And it's a whole lot sweeter to serve someone because you want to and your heart says to than to do it because it's a duty on your list (blech).

I hope this all makes sense . . .

Rowena said...

I love that you are talking about perfection. As a recovering perfectionist, it's something I think about often.

I suppose I am not a non perfectionist, but my definition of perfection has changed.

I used to think perfection was never doing or getting anything wrong. Never messing up or making a mistake or acting poorly or mean. Always being good and good at everything.

Thus I spent many years avoiding conflict, struggle, challenging activities and things that I did not have an immediate talent for.


Now I think perfection is more about understanding that life is perfect just the way it is, as am I. That's right, in my flaws, I am perfect. I ain't broken at all.

I like the idea of idea of Muslim rugmakers, who put a planned flaw into every rug, because only god should think that he can create perfection.

And D'arcy, I like the imperfection of your painting. It offers so much expression and a kind of depth that has nothing to do with the surface that Vermeer was so adept at painting.

D'Arcy said...

HWHL: Yes, I think loving God and loving others is probably the best way to live a good life here.

Jo: I love your idea on whole and complete. Looking at it this way makes it more worth striving for.

Boquinha--what is up with us and checklists? I don't know why I am that way, it makes me feel like I am actually accomplishing something, I guess. I love that you are open with your children and I agree about your thoughts on the "ideal." However, I have been told that the ideal is preached so that we all have something to strive for.

Do you agree with that?

Rowena: we've come to the same conclusion, you summed up my thoughts exactly. Thank you.

Gustav said...

Dear D'Arcy

I wonder who the anxious girl is in the painting? Is she searching for a perfection that she cannot find? Perhaps if she stopped searching for perfection she would find it.

I am not perfect, yet I have perfect moments.

And perhaps we should focus on perfect moments rather than on obtaining our own perfection.

Perfect moments are unique states of consciousness where we open ourselves like a bursting flower to the beauty around us.

Think of your day today, did you have any perfect moments?

This morning I had a perfect silly moment.

While driving Maya to school we passed a frost glittered field that shimmered in the morning sun. A slight mist was rising from a river running through its heart and there along the bank of the river, were three of Maya's favorite birds; the infamous Tasmanian Hen.

I rolled down the window, and sang out to those beautiful birds a few beautiful words of praise. Then I looked in my rear view mirror where Maya was sitting in the back seat and she had a huge smile on her face and was unaware that I had seen her amazing smile.

It was a small moment of perfection that I will store inside my imperfect self.

Hey, It's Ansley said...

Deep down I think that perfection is my own personal effort to be the best person I can be. The problem is that I often confuse this with trying to be the best parts of everyone else around me. Everyone is going to be better at something than I am but they have their weaknesses too. I just need to give myself a break and relax. But it is hard when you feel like perfection has one definition for everyone. So there's the textbook answer, now I just need to work on that being my go-to answer, the one I believe not only deep down but have it be the first thing I think.

Sugar said...

Final thoughts on this one.

Checklists keep coming up this week. I have to keep getting my head around other people's compulsions to achieve... I have my goals, too, but I'm not going to beat myself for not checking off all of my daily items. I think checklists might give us purpose when we don't really have one. Or when we are avoiding our true nature or calling. That might be why the madness and depression of checklists is so universal...

HappyWifeHappyLife said...

D'Arcy - just took a look at the "updated" photo of the painting - I love it even MORE now! Really really really really really good! You are so talented, girl!

D'Arcy said...

Thank you! Yes. I called my friend and made her take a picture of it and send it to me. I love this painting and this photo actually does it some justice. The other one was just bad, bad!

Thanks again!

D'Arcy said...

Sugar, I found myself with a major checklist yesterday and every time I checked something off in my head I smiled in delight. Half way through my day I was like, what in the hell am I doing?! I seriously scheduled time to read because I wanted to feel the accomplishment of getting a book read and marking it off on goodreads!! Lame!

I had to mix it up and get out of my mode.

by the way, are you on goodreads? you should join, but only because it's fun, and not a list!

Boquinha said...

I love Gustav's comments . . .

Hmmmm, good question. Do I think an ideal is necessary so we have something to strive for. Um, I think it's handy and can be fine if we don't lose sight of having balance and working on being centered. I think that when we focus on BEING rather than DOING that we know what's right to do. We all have a moral compass but not everyone knows how to tap in, so tapping in to that instead of being some Julie Beck image is healthier, I think. I teach my clients in therapy that comparisons are very dangerous and to avoid them. Therein lies the danger in ideals--by comparison, we're generally not measuring up and that doesn't exactly facilitate progress, eh? Ooooh, I love it when I write and learn something. I need this for my notes. :P

Jennifer said...

Here's my take on it... we have a skewed, worldly view of perfectionism... A definition that includes comparison, criticism, competition, contradictions. Those are all lies. To be perfect, like Christ, is compassion, charity, constructive. Look at Hebrews, the whole book, sometime through this lens of perfection. Consider what Paul was expressing in his path to be like Christ.

In other words, with the attempt to becoming more like Christ and knowing that it really is ONLY by His grace, after all that we can do, that we can ever come close. AND that there is the sweetest sense of peace in knowing that He, in is mercy, fills in all the blanks and inadequacies of my life when I'm doing my very best.

Oh how we need Him!