Thursday, November 1, 2012

Perfectionism and faith...an oxymoronic marriage

I just spent a little while listening to a conversation about perfectionism on NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook.
The conversation started me thinking...oh!oh! not again!
Thoughts tumbled, pictures formed and reformed in a kaleidoscope of images of my own experience as a perfectionist, and of others who, too, demonstrated many of the attitudes and behaviours associated with perfectionism.
It was Marion Woodman's excellent work, Addiction to Perfection, that first opened my eyes to the kind of restrictions that are concomitant with perfectionism. In fact, her subtitle is "The Unravished Bride"...and the pages within are dedicated to many of her Jungian clients, most of the women, who suffered from anorexia, bulimia and the symptoms associated with those conditions. Being, or at least believing oneself to be, unable to accept the archetype in between the most beautiful and the most ugly, the real, seems to be one approach to this condition, a condition that seems to affect many more people, especially young people, today than I was consciously aware of when I was growing up.
However, while there are millions of manifestations of what people call perfectionism, including obsessing over dirt, obsession over weight, over imperfect negative performance(s), over parenting a young child, over the lack of X (whatever that X might be), there is a danger of a kind of perfectionism that is attached to the activities, attitudes, beliefs and judgements that abound in christian churches, (if not those of other faiths as well) that smells like perfectionism, sounds like perfectionism, walks and talks like perfectionism and calls itself "the expression of deep faith"....
My question, whenever I meet those smells, sounds, walks and talks of perfectionism, is,"Are you expressing deep faith or profound fear?
There is a quality of the insurance policy that accompanies many pursuing a faith, an insurance policy that perhaps, just might, keep me on the road to heaven, so they think and believe.
And since it is impossible to provide empirical evidence to support or to refute such a perception, they are permitted to continue, with both immunity and impunity, whether or not their walk is toward a deep, and a deeply satisfying relationship with God.
Fear, as 'awe,' given the Greek translation of the New Testament "fear," is quite different from the kind of fear that stalks a person terrified of not being "good enough" for entry into heaven. Falling short, forever obsessing about not being good enough, fearing that one falls short no matter what one does, or how one does it, seems anathema to a healthy faith in a healthy God; yet that fear stalks many church pews and the people who sit in those pews, and from this vantage point, I suspect makes God weep.
If God created us in "his image" (imago dei) and if God truly did come that we might have life and have it more abundantly, then how and why have we "pretzelized" our bodies, our minds and our spirits into some deformed shape, as our expression of our belief in, and discipleship of God....and then, turned our deformed identities into gluttonous consumers of the drugs, many of them narcotics, that are marketed to "make us feel good"?
In so doing, we have abdicated our own agency, and our own identity, as we lie prostrate at the altar of the pill and the pharmaceutical industry that has seduced us into such acquisitions, legal or illegal.
Have we turned perfectionism into the standard of our "inadequacy" and permitted ourselves to be defined as "perfectly inadequate" as our capitulation to the seduction of false humility? Certainly, those people like Kevin O'Leary, who parade into our living rooms on CBC's Dragon's Den, and I'm told other shows, trumpeting the magnificence of their own ego's, will, if they have no done so already, generate a booming industry for the millions who feel "less than" when encountering his bravado.
His narcissistic and twisted ego, larger by half than the norm, only demonstrates his empty, hollow core, at least from the perspective of this couch.
God does not need, and does not want a perfectly folded altar linen, as a demonstration of our "religiosity" as a surrogate for authentic discipleship.
God does not need, and does not want a perfectly balanced cheque book, among the many women's groups within the church, especially when there are mouths begging to be fed, children needing to be bathed and bedded, and elderly needing to be befriended.
God does not need, and does not want a million-dollar investment account,in a church in a plutocratic section of the city, as an expression of "good stewardship," when there are people sleeping on the church steps, in the alcoves, where the wind will pass them by, leaving them alone in their body heat and in their cardboard box-tent-bed.
God does not need a religiously deposited envelope on a plate every Sunday morning, as a hedge against purgatory or damnation, given our capacity for both, and our leaning over in the wind of our fears.
Standing up straight, owning both our talents and our weaknesses, in places where we know we are safe, with others who have courage to stand with us listening to our full stories, as we listen to their's, whether such a "community" exists within the walls of a sanctuary, a synagogue, a mosque or a basement of a house, trumps all our outward show of our own perfection, as we define it, demonstrating our unconscious becoming our own God, drunk on our own illusion, worshipping at the altar to our own pomposity....and that, folks, is neither perfection nor faith!
And yet, it seems that most of the social, personal and religious judgements and invectives come from the church pews (and pulpits), where those sitting or standing there have immunized themselves, and their fellow dupes, to the staggering insult that they might just be failing to acknowledge the plank in their own eye, while they exaggerate the speck in the other's eye.
I have struggled with the perfection of a parent's punishment, when I failed to meet unreasonable standards for perfection, even being beaten following a piano recital during which my suit jacket sleeve ticked a note in mid performance, and have never been able to reconcile the punishment and the "crime."
I have struggled with the punishment of a teacher (the strap) following a friendly poke on my friend's shoulder as he passed my desk in grade four, once again not being able to reconcile the punishment and the "crime".
I have struggled with the judgement of establishments in both education and the church, for behaviours that warranted attention and reconciliation, where only I had to bear responsibility, the "establishment" having neither volunteered nor acknowledged its responsibility.
I have also struggled as I witnessed the ostracising of the less fortunate by those rich and smug christians whose contempt for the less fortunate trumped any commitment they might make to their own spiritual growth or the amelioration of the circumstances of those less fortunate among them.
I have struggled, as did Luther, with the rich and sumptuous tomb-stone edifices to the ego's of the hierarchy of the church, built on the pennies of the poor, demonstrating a "perfect" commitment to their own "heroic" discipleship, masking their own fears of inadequacy.
I have struggled with the unwarranted, uninformed judgements of men and women who refused to do their own spiritual and emotional "work" as part of their religious discipleship, while they projected their own emptiness onto others in public and vilifying ways.
There has to be some connection between the human addiction to perfection and the pursuit of a relationship with God, no matter what form or gender or history of that God was the one of  choice. And that connection requires further study, further disclosure and much more analysis, before I will venture into full participation in a faith community.
Perhaps, I seek a more unsullied and unvarnished and unpretentious relationship with God, who, for me, has never been either pretentious or needy and I will continue to seek such a relationship, whenever and wherever I can find it.

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