Saturday, May 24, 2014

Reflections on perfectionism

For the second or third time, my wife and I just watched a re-run of the Sandra Bullock-Hugh Grant comedy, Two Weeks Notice. While I did not recall many of the specific comedic scenes, I also did not have a vivid recall of the scene in which Grant's character, George, explains to "Lucy" (Bullock) why no one wants to be with her, that she has such high expectations, like noting the split infinitive in his last speech, and that such "perfectionists" are "boring"....in his words.
Perfectionism, that dreaded disease that afflicts many of us who have spent decades practicing the piano, or perhaps other decades "perfecting" our skills as brains surgeons, or "perfecting" our skills in detecting many of the details we face on the faces of those we meet, in an endless search for full awareness of the complexity of the immediate situation....in social terms, is both dangerous and destructive, especially to relationships, where "moderation" equals mediocrity.
Once, in a private conversation with a bishop whose duty it was to "filter" candidates for ministry, I heard these words, "No congregation wants to hear the full truth; they can't stand it!" And upon hearing those words, I wondered, silently, of course, why I had chosen to pursue a life in active ministry if the full truth were not going to be permitted in that pursuit. And then I quickly learned, to my dismay, that politics trumps truth-telling in the church, that whom one associates with is more important than whether that person tells the truth, faces the truth or even wants the truth in his or her spiritual journey.
Persistence, in the pursuit of full disclosure, is one of the most noxious of social diseases. It offends those who have chosen to hide their private lives from the eyes and ears of their families for decades. It offends those who know members of their family who have hidden their pasts, and have developed a family "rule" never to speak of that 'dark' truth forever.
It offends those who believe that the telling of 'dark' truths is an offence to the human condition, so dependent is that condition, in their minds, on a "rose-coloured-glasses" picture of the past, the present and the future.
Since it is a prevalent and growing disease, especially in circles in which snobbery triumphs, political correctness reigns, and let's look at some of the reasons why many of us protect our mask of demanding, pursuing and expecting perfection.
First, we know that we are not now, and never have been fully adequate, in whatever endeavour we have pursued. Whether we failed in our final examinations for our 'associate' degree in piano studies, or whether we failed in our first, second and third attempt to acquire an undergraduate degree, or whether we were refused admission to both a doctoral program and law school, the first based on an unprofessional letter of reference by an anal-retentive math-grad high school principal, the second based on poor undergraduate grades, or whether, for many years we heard the words, "You are no good and you never will be any good, just like your father!" so often that in our innocent adolescence we believed there had to be some merit to the evaluation....the message of inadequacy was writ both large and indelible in our minds, our hearts and in our belief systems.
And so, we kept our 'nose clean' and kept on marching to a drummer that demanded more than any
human being should have had to "put out"...and in a manner that kept us driving for more....more responsibility, more respect (that illusive and illusional elixir that never fills the bottomless pit of a "worthless spirit". We applied for more positions than we should have. We attended more interviews than we could expect to be approved in. We performed more tasks, professionally and extra-curricularly than our families deserved (guaranteeing our continual absence) and we also hit a wall when, on a long walk in the northern Ontario forest, we suddenly grasped an epiphany: What if the Christian faith really were true, that a man-God named Jesus, the Christ Resurrected, actually died for us, and to atone for our sins, our's and our neighbours, not only our neighbours, then why were we playing God and imposing our limited perception on this universal act of grace, meaning that 'that' was only for the destitute people, and for me?
And then, without skipping beat, we wandered off on another voyage of self-discovery, to delve even more deeply into why we were so driven to  succeed, and to encounter new mountains and seas of awareness of our perceived compulsion to work longer and harder than our bodies and our minds and our spirits could sustain.
And, in the process, we were provided with opportunities like training in pastoral skills and post mortem reflections that were dependent on our enhanced awareness of our identity, especially as perceived by others whose perceptions were not based on any authority or obligation to please, but rather on a sceptical penetration of insights that challenged our illusions, removed many of them, and caused us to further question our basic assumptions of our identity and purpose. And when we overlaid our 'work ethic' with our affective learnings and began to discover how we had become a human "doing" instead of a human "being" and then we proceeded on another 'trip' to grow new comprehensions of what it means to mature and become a 'man' in a world dominated by controlling women, without our learning, first and foremost, that acceptance of self, fully, completely and unconditionally was the sine qua non of any healthy human relationship and that such acceptance would always be a work in progress, and never a finished "product".
And with the help of a partner who too, accepted her vulnerabilities and her incompleteness, as well as mine, we were finally able to begin to walk a trail over whose entrance were emblazoned the words "Go gently into the dark night....you are not alone" and find those words full of meaning and truth, not the kind of public and political truth that passes for "reality" in the practical sense world, but rather a deeper and more sustained, less fickle and  less stable reality of mood, or of intellectual prowess, a truth that was firmly grounded in open and full disclosure of all truths: factual, fiscal, emotional and spiritual....in a spirit of a conjoined search for each other, ourselves and a new self, the relationship.
Once, in an acrimonious conversation with a former professional colleague who had deeply and profoundly hurt me, in a character reference that far exceeded both ethical and professional boundaries, probably out of the jealousy of an extremely insecure man, he said, "I understand that you are unhappy with me; so let's have a conversation with you laying out all of your arguments and I will counter every one with mine!" in an act of desperate hubris.
To which I immediately retorted, "It is not a matter of winning an argument for God's sake! It is a matter of trust and I simply do not trust you!
And in that conversation, I became aware of just how much I had pandered to the political powers that had impact on my life, and sacrificed my truth in too many situations, in order to appear "perfect" but really as I then saw it, simply acceptable.
I believed that had I not been so "compliant" and adaptable, I would never have been accepted, and the truth was really that I could never be accepted unless and until I accepted myself, something that was denied me in my developmental years, and something that repeated itself in the many chapters of my first five decades.
Today, I have retained some of the nuanced and detailed pursuit of a life that accepts the limits of my abilities and my mortality, without the condemnation of restricted breathing or sleepless nights because I am not "good enough" but the battle is never over and will be with me until my last breath.

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