I am not a fan of early morning meetings. They contain two things that I don’t like: 1) early morning meetings, and 2) meetings. But there are always exceptions, and Monday morning we had such an exception.
Dr. Jane Bluestein is a former teacher from Pittsburgh who now runs Instructional Support Services in Albuquerque, and her latest book, The Perfection Deception, was the topic of her presentation. She began by pointing out that perfectionism is not a good thing – in fact, it is a disordered way of approaching life. She also noted that when we abandon perfectionism we are not consigning ourselves to mediocrity or worse, but instead we are then free to pursue excellence.
We all have a bit of perfectionism in us, and for some of us, because of both nature and nurture, it can be a real problem, keeping us from any kind of real happiness. Getting past perfectionism is a process and like Bob Wiley in What About Bob? we need to take baby steps.
A major part of the problem with perfectionism is the belief that it is a good thing, a character trait that sets us apart in a positive sense. After Dr. Bluestein’s talk I happened to see my great friend and fellow Theology teacher Jim Brennan and we knew that a lot of what was said related to many of our students but we recognized a bit of perfectionism in ourselves as well. We could not help but be reminded of our forays, with our children, into the “competitive world” of Trivia Nights where winning wasn’t so much a joy as it was a relief.
As Dr. Bluestein spoke about the deleterious effects that perfectionism can have on people, especially young people, I was led to ponder the spiritual side of this discussion. What can a person’s perfectionism – as opposed to a person’s pursuit of spiritual goodness or excellence – tell her or him about where they stand in their spiritual journey? Sadly, perfectionism tends to be a sign not of spiritual health, but a symptom of the spiritual pathology known as pride, the deadliest of all the seven deadly sins.
When we honestly examine why we have a need for perfection, it is most probably because of how we want others to see us, or, to put it another way, how we see others seeing us. Perfectionism provides the bricks and mortar that create the façade that we build around the real us, and provides the buffer between our real selves and the persona that we project to the world.
Without explicitly using this term, all of the great spiritual masters of the Catholic tradition opposed this slavery to perfectionism. Instead of being happy with the false selves that the perfectionists project onto the world, these spiritual guides all propose an alternate plan. First, the perfectionist must no longer concern her or himself with how others see them. No saints worried about any human opinions of them; their only focus was on how God saw them and in this they were imitating their Savior. At the most important moment of His life Jesus stood before people who had the power to send Him to a very humiliating and painful death, yet He stood His ground, concerned only with how the Father saw Him.
In addition to a lack of concern for the thoughts of the world, the great spiritual guides of our Faith also focus on the most ‘lively’ (opposite of deadly – thank you, Bishop Barron) virtue of humility. Living a life of humility is trickier than it seems, and it is easy to mask perfectionism and pride with what is usually called “false humility.” False humility proposes that we aren’t all that good at something in order to be told that we are. Imagine LeBron James claiming that he’s nothing special on the basketball court – that’s not humility, that’s a set-up for all within ear shot to tell him just how great he is.
Lent is the perfect time to begin the process of becoming truly humble, and to move away from a perfectionism that can keep any of us, no matter how sincere, from growing into the persons that we were created to be. There are a number of baby steps that we can take on the long journey to humility, and we need to honestly examine our own brand of perfectionism in order to find those practices that will work best for us.
For many, a great first step might be to deliberately drive behind someone who is travelling way too slowly and to maintain a calm patience. For others of us, humility can be engendered by allowing someone else to take credit for our idea or letting someone else tell a story that we really wanted to tell or letting a factual mistake in that story go un-corrected by us.
Or maybe, and this is really severe, we could attend a Trivia Night without any other purpose than to share an evening together and not care about the outcome. But if that’s too much, then maybe we could just drive behind a really slow car on the way home.