The End of Perfection

On Kol Nidre we begin a 25-hour pursuit of a common goal: improvement. We want to be better, we want to do better, and we want a better world.

My problem is that I have trouble distinguishing the lofty and sacred goal of just being better from my need to work toward perfection.

You might ask: "What's wrong with trying to be perfect?" Being ambitious, competitive and striving for ever-higher goals is seen as positive attributes. Striving for perfection may help us to accomplish more. Yet, so much is lost when perfectionism governs our lives.

You might not be a perfectionist. If not, bravo or brava – that is a character trait you have surpassed. Even if you are not so defined, I’m fairly certain you know someone who is. The perfectionism of a friend or relative or co-worker can make your life more difficult as well. The perfectionist has little sympathy for anything that is merely good and disdains the adequate.

Film director Stanley Kubrick is a perfectionist. He holds the worlds record for 148 takes in filming the same scene of the movie The Shining; 148 times! Steve Jobs was a well-known perfectionist who was not only miserable himself but made the lives of all around him miserable.

Their perfectionism discarded the passion to live well in favor of striving to be flawless. Imperfection was not their problem. Hatred of imperfection was the problem.

John Cleese of Monty Python fame wrote: “The problem was that I carried around with me a tendency to feel that other people’s respect for me would vanish if what I did was second rate. And while I accept that this “perfectionism” is likely to stimulate the production of better work, it doesn’t, unfortunately, go hand in hand with a relaxed and happy attitude to life.”

The pursuit of perfection expunges joy and strips us of understanding. Why? Because the perfectionist thinks that only when I achieve perfection, will I feel good about myself. Striving for perfection inhibits one from experiencing joy. Rather they pursue the avoidance of the feeling of guilt and shame that we might experience if we were merely adequate or sufficient. The perfectionist is not capable of actually enjoying an activity or achievement for its own sake, since they will always be convinced that they are not doing it as well as they should.

Neither are our bodies perfect. Nor will they be. Imperfection lies in every cell, in every breath.

Our bodies reflect the truth of life, that in any moment we are a mixture of the miraculous creation and the imperfect conception.

In Jewish thought, perfection is found in only one place, the nefesh, the soul. The soul resides in that imperfect body of yours. It means that we play the game of life with the cards we are given. That is difficult for the perfectionist to accept.

Psychologists have documented this state of mind, which may cause depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders and even suicidal thoughts.

The striving for perfection is learned at a relatively young age in educational institutions and religious settings and in social media. It is a vicious cycle. We learn to strive for perfection. Because we are merely human, we react to unmet expectations with feelings of failure, rejection and disappointment. As a result the perfectionist might try even harder to be perfect. One person can be satisfied, and even proud of a superior, albeit non-perfect, performance, while the perfectionist experiences it as a humiliating defeat.

And my experience tells me that many live on this razor’s edge of psychological trauma related to the perfection complex to which they subscribe. Impressionist landscape painter Claude Monet once declared, “My life has been nothing but a failure, and all that’s left for me to do is to destroy my paintings before I disappear.” Monet was a perfectionist.

The pursuit of the perfect may become a desperate attempt to gain the recognition and acceptance or love that we crave. It may be the love of parents, the love of our peers, the approval of teachers or the love of God.

I believe that the skill of being merely human is becoming a lost art. Our attention is perpetually drawn to the best. Television is inundated with competitions to be the best. We go to concerts of performers who are the greatest. Our personal interactions are to be irreproachable. In our professions, our work product must be impeccable. I won’t ask how many doctors or lawyers or other professionals in this room live in fear of being sued or have been sued because mistakes are always possible when we are not perfect.

Making mistakes, our doubts and regrets are not a pathology but part of the ebb and flow of human experience.

And when we are disappointed, when we exhibit our weaknesses, when we are in pain – what do we do? Let’s say you just made a mistake at work, you feel awful and on the way home you run into a friend. “Hey, Evan, nice to see you. How are you doing?” “I’M OK! I’M GREAT!” (actually I am not okay). Sometimes we just don’t know what to do with our pain, how to express our disappointment, so we pretend. We pretend that all is well. We don’t mention how distressed we are because we think that we need to have all of the answers to demonstrate that we are intellectually and emotionally equipped to master the world.

There are further ramifications to this perfection complex.

If we can’t accept our own weaknesses, we are less likely to accept the weakness of others. When we are unable to adapt to our own limitations, we are more prone to being impatient with the limitations of others.

When we can’t fully accept our own frailties, we also have trouble appreciating our talents and contributions. Parker Palmer is well known as a keen observer and a brilliant interpreter of spiritual communities. He holds 11 PhDs! Palmer is a practicing Quaker. In conversation with Krista Tippett he described his own perfectionism in deeply personal and unpolished terms. Palmer reported that when someone says to him “You are so successful. You have written so well! That would leave Palmer feeling even more depressed (more depressed) because he would feel that he has just defrauded another person who, “if they really knew me,” said Palmer, “they’d know what a schmuck I am.” Palmer explained that the experience of being complimented would cast Palmer further into the darkness where he already resides.

Perfectionism is not the Jewish way. In the Talmud, we learn who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot. Pirke Avot 4:1.

There is the story of the yeshiva bucher in Israel, the Talmud student, who desires so much to have the knowledge of the Rosh Yeshiva, the head of his school. He reads in our tradition of great leaders and scholars who stay up all night studying. Psalm 119 even teaches that King David rose at midnight to study! So this yeshiva bucher turned day into night in his pursuit of perfect knowledge. The Rosh Yeshiva heard of his unusual habits and called the student to his office. The Rosh Yeshiva acknowledged the history of great leaders and scholars who studied at night and the student was thrilled to have what seemed to be the Rosh Yeshiva’s approval. But then the Rosh Yeshiva said: All this is true, but… - But there is a factor that needs to be the main consideration and overrides all other considerations – to be a normal person! In past centuries, explained the Rosh, this was normal behavior for serious learners, but today this is no longer normal, and therefore all your arguments and justifications are irrelevant and if you persist the end will be dreadful!

For the obsessive yeshiva bucher, for the perfectionist at work, there are corrective measures.

First, accept mistakes as present moment learning experiences. It is what it is. The moment will pass. Gam zeh ya’avor – is a Jewish adage meaning “this too shall pass.” Nothing really endures.

In Hebrew, the word we might use for perfection is shleimut, but it really means wholeness. Perfection in the Jewish sense is the pursuit of wholeness. And wholeness is acceptance of who we are and to commit oneself to work on our tikkun, or individual refinement. Shleimut can also be understood as requiring that one take a balanced and harmonious approach to life and not focusing on perfectionism in any one character or activity.

Mistakes are just another flavor of reality. We can’t avoid them. We don’t have to define our selves by them. Rabbi Jay Michaelson teaches that real joy comes from relaxing the bonds of ought and allowing the bliss of is.

Our imperfections need not have a strangle hold on us. Not all of the consequences of our mistakes will get better – there will be ongoing effects of injury or hardship. But with acceptance, our lives will seem simpler. Calmness and clarity bring their own rewards. When we fail, when we lose, we can also use the opportunity to feel more authentic, more connected. When we are merely on a path of striving to do better, we open ourselves to more possibilities. Surrender is not defeat. When we relinquish the ego, surrender the need to control, know, understand and dominate, we are better equipped to experiment, explore, connect and better engage with the world.

Second, the perfectionist can learn to be okay with sharing their fullest selves. The key to sharing is to create safe relationships. A safe relationship is one where we listen attentively and without judgment. We can trust in relationships when we ourselves allow others to express their pain; all we have to do is to listen well and to be present with them in their suffering. Then we too will be better able to share our beautiful imperfections. We should all be working on creating safe relationships to promote sharing and caring.

The goal of life is not to achieve excellence in all we do. Religion, and Judaism in particular, is a way of speaking about how we address our faults in an endless cycle of humans being human.

There is no character in all of Torah and Tanakh who is perfect. Not Abraham, not Moses, and certainly not King David. Yet, as the humanity of each is fully on display in their stories, their errors become instructive moments in history. Our tradition unpacks these episodes as insights into repentance and improvement. Moses is taught to say the thirteen virtues of God: Adonai Adonai El Rachum, v’chanun. King David learns to acknowledge his failings, repent and then move on. In each biblical lesson our relationship with God can shape a healthier relationship with ourselves.

In our tradition there is the story that each of us is connected to the Divine by a thin imperceptible rope. When we act poorly, the rope starts to fray. When we repent the rope doubles up on itself creating a knot that more securely attaches us to God. And the more the rope is knotted the shorter it becomes. The shorter the rope, the shorter the distance between us and God. It is the imperfect person who is drawn closest to God.

These High Holidays, and this day, Yom Kippur, are certainly about repentance, teshuvah. And the implications are so much more than being sorry for our sins. The real impact of this experience is not to make perfection our goal but to work on the conditions and disorders that inhibit us from being fully human.

In my moral and spiritual imagination, we are all working tirelessly to be kinder to each other, to be guardians of our planet, and protectors of truth. But these are daydreams not realities. We often hide from our potential by focusing on our need to be perfect in all we attempt to do. If I can’t achieve something flawlessly, I might not attempt to do anything at all. The world can’t wait.

We’re never ready, and we are never perfect, despite this, we go forward.

The pursuit of perfection is deceptive. We withdraw from the world when we focus on perfection. We stand alone even when we are together.

The acceptance of imperfection is not an excuse to desist from the tasks at hand. We who are imperfect will forever be challenged by moral dilemmas and existential threats. Human interactions with each other and with this planet will always cause tension and damage. As individuals we will falter. When there is repair to do, we need to work together, with all of our individual strengths and imperfections.

We will all suffer through dark nights of the soul, those times when heartache challenges our faith in a loving and redeeming God. We suffer more when we stand alone. We find healing and comfort when we come together.

To overcome this isolating perfectionist pursuit, we have to learn to be okay with feeling badly. Here’s an example: One of the least observed days on the Hebrew calendar is Tisha B’av, the day we recall the destruction of the first and second temples. We read the book of Lamentations, written by Jeremiah. It begins: “How lonely sits the city.” Yet, Tisha B’av is when the tears of a generation pool together and flood the collective soul with sadness. While I don’t hope for the rebuilding of the Temple, I find the Tisha B’av experience to be an essential exercise for the Jewish soul. The memory of destruction, the rush of sadness, can be motivators to create a better world.

But much of our modern society rejects lamenting. Ours is the pursuit of the perfect life, the happiest existence, the richest purse, and the textbook smile. Lamenting has little place in the super human world.

As we try to control this messy world in which we live, we are tugged and torn by desires and needs and holes we fill with excess. Yom Kippur is the day when we withdraw from all of the pursuits and struggles. We stop trying to control the chaos and idiosyncrasy of the world and focus on the crevices in our own souls.

Life is not perfect. Life is unsettled, transitory, ever changing, Life is by definition messy, always on the verge of chaos and amazement. The only constant about life is that existence happens on the razor edge of catastrophe. The cancer, the car accident, the economic crash – these create the wounds that provide the opportunity to become more whole. Only when we emerge through the most extreme experiences of life’s imperfection are we able to more profoundly live our lives in our imperfect bodies, with all of life’s flaws and grace. When we are forced to confront imperfection, we can also live lives that are more deeply rooted, contented, and dynamic.

If we want to live better, wiser and not just smarter, we have to end the perfection obsession. What if we wake up to the reality that we don’t have to look and act perfect? Rather, it would be so wonderful if we accepted and embraced the messy human way our lives unfold. We should be called to our best selves, not some perfect version of the person we have created in our minds. Vulnerability and even suffering may be the elements of spiritual growth and personal wisdom. We need to know our flaws as much as our strengths. That is what makes hope reasonable and lived virtue possible.

We would open ourselves to more love; love for ourselves, accepting the love of others, and loving others unconditionally. And we need each other to figure this out. We will not merely live but thrive if we are able to engage in fully honest, caring relationships.

What if we could find greater contentment in our lives? I believe that it would be hard to contain ourselves, when we strip back the limitations of doubt, shame and fear. When we no longer hold ourselves back because we are okay with being imperfect, it is possible that we will love more, soar more, create more, repair more, and support others more.

Father Killian McDonnell, a Benedictine monk wrote a poem that captures how I am feeling now. Its title: Perfection, Perfection.

I have had it with perfection.

I have packed my bags.

I am out of here.

Gone.

As certain as rain

Will make you wet

Perfection will do you

In.

. . .

I’ve handed in my notice

Given back my keys,

Signed my severance check, I

Quit.

Hints I could have taken:

Even the perfect chiseled form of

Michelangelo’s radiant David,

Squints,

The Venus de Milo

Has no arms,

The Liberty Bell is

Cracked.

In this New Year, may you engage each other more fully, find the wholeness of your being a perfectly imperfect person, and never desist from the tasks at hand to repair the brokenness in this world.

Amen.

(with recognition of Krista Tippett whose exploration of spiritual life gave me the framing for this talk.)