Perfectionism

Striving for perfection is not always a bad thing. Our Lord even commands us to be perfect even as God is perfect. However, too often in human history this desire for perfection can be a dangerous companion. If allowed to wander too far away from the reality of our human condition it quickly turns on us and consumes our very humanity. Perfectionism, as it is sometimes called, is like gluttony or lust. It is a beast with an insatiable hunger consuming everything in its path. It is never satisfied because we can never fully satisfy it's demands. This sort of perfection seeking is, however, a constituent part of our American society. It has always been present because of the Puritan roots of this nation. Even in our contemporary age where Puritanism is among our list of pejorative terms, the Puritan spirit of perfectionism persists. We all feel its constant pressures in our daily lives. Even as I write this article the desire for perfection haunts me. And, if I succumb to its cravings I'll never finish because: "My work will not be good enough." "It will be ridiculed." "It will fall on deaf ears (or blind eyes in this case)." Sounds neurotic doesn't it? Well, it is. But, it is a neurosis born of this American sickness of perfectionism.

I was recently at a conference where the topic was stewardship. One presenter spoke about hospitality in the context of parish life. While I agreed that parishes could do a better job at welcoming new parishioners I was concurrently disturbed by the suggestions offered to accomplish this. I wasn't so much disturbed by the suggestions of handshaking before Mass or playing fast and loose with the rubrics for this (I'm already accustomed to such silliness). What disturbed me was something the presenter seemed unaware of in all her suggestions. Innocently, no doubt, she seemed to think that we needed a set program and policy for greeting people. When I realized this I finally understood how ill our culture has become.

One example given by the presenter was noticing a new person, after Mass, standing alone not interacting with the group. She suggested that there needed to be a strategy established to welcome that person into the community. I couldn't help but smile when some of the older attendees shouted out, "just go introduce yourself!" I immediately thanked God for the wisdom of the older and more 'human' generations. It was that simple, say hi. Take the initiative. No batteries required. The presenter seemed dumbfounded.

As I relished the indignant confusion of the presenter I realized something. By and large, we don't know how to just say hi anymore. By that I mean, we have damaged our capacity for basic human interactions. But, why? Simply, we have all become insecure pre-teens at a middle school dance waiting for someone else to make the first move. But, why? Because we are terrified. We are terrified that we will be judged insufficient, incapable, uninteresting, imperfect. I think this is the real reason online communities like Facebook have become so popular. We are protected by a computer screen and fancy programming from ever having to take any real steps toward the necessary intimacy, and therefore vulnerability, required for any real human relationship. Have you noticed, you are alerted when someone 'friends' you but you are not alerted when someone 'de-friends' you? We are insulated from the possibility of a failed relationship. We are safe. We are stupid.

All of this is born out of our fear of being imperfect. It stops us from so many wonderful possibilities and adventures. Remember the old saying, "better to have loved and lost then to never have loved at all"? Well, it's true. But if we succumb to perfectionism we will never take the first step. We will be paralyzed by the fear of rejection. We will be paralyzed by the fear of being discovered. People may discover that we are imperfect, flawed, hairy, smelly, unwashed, sinful, human beings. We fear that our humanity might accidentally show.

In the simple human act of greeting someone new I can hear the litany of insecurity being recited in my mind. What if they don't like me? What if my breath stinks? What if they don't like my cloths? What if they can't understand my accent? Are my teeth white? Is my hair sticking up? What will I say? What if I don't have anything to say? What if I'm unlovable? And so we let the opportunity of friendship pass because we are paralyzed in our own minds. Or worse, the litany takes on an accusatory tone. I'm too fat. I'm too stupid. I'm not interesting. I'm unlovable. Why would he want to know me? Depressing, no? But I'm sure we have all heard these litanies over and over again in our minds.

The destruction that perfectionism has done to us is enormous. It has led us all into antisocial and narcissistic behavior patters. When we need a program, policy, or trained team to welcome people into a community we have, without a doubt, lost our way as a society. In a perfectionist society there is no room for mercy. We are either unmerciful toward others in demanding perfection from them or we lack mercy on ourselves and the litanies begin. But mercy is necessary to have a healthy society. Also, the possibility of empathy is lost because we are constantly focused on ourselves. But empathy is necessary to have a healthy society. And, most tragically, we lose intimacy because we lose the freedom to become vulnerable. So we supplement intimacy with false alternatives like casual sex and social networking. Everything is placed at a distance but we never enter into meaningful relations. But meaningful relations are one of the primary needs of the human person. If we don't receive them we necessarily fall into all sorts of self-destructive behavior.

This, then, will begin a series on the different concrete ways that perfectionism harms our secular and spiritual life. I'll try to diagnose some common ailments and then provide some practical solutions to each. So, as always, stay tuned. And, in the meantime, resolve to introduce yourself to at least one new person a week. Imagine the possibilities that could open up before you. Imagine the possibility of true friendship.