The Snow White Effect of Perfectionism

When was the last time you went to confession? Has anyone ever asked you this? I hope so. But, most likely you've never even heard a priest ask you. Why? I think that it has to do with the perfectionism I wrote about here. I know this goes against conventional wisdom. But, in my experience, conventional wisdom is generally wrong. A good example is that only some people hold strong positions. Give me a break. If you have an IQ higher than a toaster (thank you Ann Coulter) then you probably hold a lot of strong opinions. Some people just share their strong positions while others pretend to not hold strong opinions while passively aggressively attacking those who don’t share their views. But, I digress. Conventional thinking wants us to believe that it is improper to ask such a private question. Once again, conventional thinking is masking the real issue.

People don’t talk about Confession because of American perfectionism. I, of course, will ask the question of people. Rarely I get an honest answer. But sometimes I do. Among the honest answers I generally get three:

  1. “I don’t have any sins to confess” (the most common answer I get from older people)
  2. “I go and nothing changes. So I don’t go anymore” (the most common answer I get from younger people)
  3. "I'm going to hell anyway ..." (the answer I usually get from middle-aged people)

To get at the heart of the matter we need first to talk about the Sacrament of Confession – what it actually is and what it is not. Confession isn't magic. Confession was not designed by our Lord to expunge our sinfulness like bleach instantly removes stains from clothing. Instead, Confession (or Penance, the name I prefer) works more like the sun. Stains are progressively removed from clothing though persistent exposure. So, we should expect the effects of the Sacrament to work similarly. Another aspect to consider is our disposition toward the sacrament. We shouldn’t go to Confession simply to have our sins forgiven. Instead, we should go to Confession simply because we love God. This difference in disposition is important. It is the difference between selfish motives and altruistic motives.

To summarize what I said about perfectionism last time there are two primary ways it can manifest itself. Either, one engages in hyper-self-reflection or no self-reflection. The first answer I usually get from people about why they don’t go to Confession is an example of the latter. It is not fundamentally important that there is no self-reflection happening in these people’s lives. What's important is the reason for the lack of self-reflection. It is painful. In a culture that struggles with perfectionism we are become like the Witch-Queen in Snow White. When I gaze into the magic mirror I discover that I am not the fairest one in the land. Then we begin to compare ourselves to others in unrealistic ways. I am then left with seemingly two options. Either I need to pretend that I am the best or I need to destroy those who I perceive to be better than me. Because, in a perfectionist society it is unacceptable to be less than the best, the most beautiful, the smartest, the holiest, the most pius in the land. If I’m not the best then I’m worthless, I’m unlovable. But let's leave malice aside for now. If I chose to pretend it's safer never look into the mirror. If I never look into the mirror, I’m free to live in a sheer, self-made delusion of self-perfection. I protect my weakness with cowardice. I don't approach Confession because it requires true self-reflection and is, therefore, terrifying.

The second response is more reasonable. But, along with treating Confession as a magical process it also misses the whole point of the Christian life. The Christian life is not fundamentally about me being perfect. The Christian life is about the love of God. When we approach the Sacrament of Penance in a selfish way we come seeking God’s mercy imperfectly. Essentially, we are testing God. We are saying that we will keep his commandments if he proves his love for us by taking away our imperfections. I groan, "if only God would remove sin x, then I could be a mystic." "Every day I would levitate and heal the sick. "Maybe I would get that cool Stigmata thing like St. Francis." But, doesn’t Christ say something about carrying ones own cross? I would challenge anyone to find where God ever promises to make us perfect. A brief read of the lives of the saints helps wash away the delusion that the saints were perfect people. They were jerks just like the rest of us. I think this is why Christ preaches mercy and forgiveness. Mercy and forgiveness are only needed in a land plagued with imperfect people. Instead of wanting God to remove our imperfections in Confession we might simply try to go to Confession for God's sake and not our own sake.

Both of these last responses are rooted in the narcissism that's inherent in a perfectionist society. But, notice, both of them are born out of despair. They are different desperate responses to the same impossible standards our society places upon each of us. This brings me to the third response I get. I don’t get it as often. It only appears, generally, after a long relationship with someone. It is the response of ultimate despair. It is the last cry of a hardened heart. Think about what’s really being said. It isn't "I'm choosing to go to hell" it is "I'm going to hell." Maybe put more explicitly, "God is sending me to hell ...". Yet, what is in the mind of this person is, “I’m so imperfect, so unlovable that even God hates me.” This is a very sad place to be. To feel so poorly about one's lovability that hell is inevitable is its own sort of hell. Each time we act without mercy toward the sinner we are contributing to such a person's hell.

But let's not despair. The solution to this phenomenon is easy and the solution is the same for each. GO TO CONFESSION! There is no secret formula, no magic pill. Simply, go to Confession and keep going. That’s the hard part. Perseverance in going to confession is hard. As a consecrated Religious the Second Vatican Council exhorts me to go to Confession once a month. That can be hard. Do I always make it? No. Do I try? Most of the time. I love going to Confession, I hate getting to Confession. It’s silly, I know. It's irrational and stupid but, it's true. And, I know it's true for many people. But regardless, we must persevere in going to Confession. If we truly desire to fight perfectionism this is the first and most powerful step we must take. It’s the beginning, middle, and final step. So, get up, put on your big kid pants, run through a good examination of conscious and get to a confessional near you.