Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 21, 2007
I am glad that this morning, in speaking about imperfection, I have finally come upon a topic with which I have vast personal experience. As do all of us, I suppose…
Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great voices of 20th Century American Protestantism and one of the great preachers of his day, once said: “Existence is what you find. Life is what you create.” I once saw a poster in a card shop which showed a little cabin, all alone in a clearing, with dense woods all around it—and it proclaimed to all who saw it: “Whatever your lot in life, build something on it!”
Such is, broadly speaking, the overriding ethos of Western civilization. We are put here on this Earth to accomplish something, to leave behind some edifice we have erected.
I love these words; they ring true within me. We want to build something upon this Earth, leave behind some evidence that we were here when we’re gone. But I also believe that part of the reason for the tension and violence and depravity and alienation of our present culture is that we have gotten so hung up in building, in doing, that we haven’t taken enough time to contemplate what it is that we are building, and where we truly are in this great whirling universe. We are like that little boy who, after he arrived at school one morning, remembered that he was supposed to have brought his birth certificate: “Oh no,” he exclaimed, “I forgot my excuse for being born!”
Maybe some of us feel (sometimes at least) that we, too, need an excuse for having been born; or, that we have to “prove” that we deserve to be here; that we need to dot all the i’s, and cross all the t’s, and pay off all of our debts, and otherwise prove ourselves “worthy” before we can feel that deep inner gladness at the very fact of our existence. We have forgotten, it seems, that living on this Earth is, indeed an amazing and free gift of grace, not something we’ve earned through our own striving and doing. We, too, might feel deep down as though we have to be perfect before we can be loved.
Therein lies a great human snare. “There is tragedy in perfection,” wrote the 20th Century philosopher George Santayana, “because the universe in which perfection arises is itself imperfect.”
If we set perfection as our goal, and strive to meet that unachievable standard, then we are dooming ourselves to failure, even before we begin. For a harsh and unswerving perfectionism is, in truth, nothing but a tragic and deadly delusion.
For we are imperfect, each one of us. That’s just the way we are made. “Everything God has made has a crack in it,” Emerson once said. But perfectionism, blasphemy that it is, tells us, somehow, that weshouldn’t be. It tells us that unless we’re perfect, then it’s a sin to be glad that we’re alive.
From where does this need for perfection come? In his book, How Good Do We Have to Be?, the well-known rabbi Harold Kushner asks just that question, and offers a few possible explanations:
[Or, I might ad, from a culture where Olympic athletes can be disappointed at winning “only” silver or bronze medals.]
How sad it is, Rabbi Kushner points out, that organizers of the National Spelling Bee every year have to provide a “comfort room” where children can go to cry to yell, to scream, to be comforted and consoled when they misspell a word and are eliminated from competition. These are young people who have just spelled dozens of words that neither you nor (most certainly not) I could ever hope to spell—who have made it to the National Finals for God’s sake—an amazing accomplishment! That’s something in which they ought to feel genuine pride— why should they need to feel awful about missing one single word?
(Rabbi Kushner adds that, to this day, he can’t see the word “judgment” without remembering that it was the word he got wrong in the finals of his elementary school spelling bee more than sixty years ago! I’m sure that, if we gave it a little thought, we could all come up with some momentary, really insignificant misstep that we made somewhere along the line, that we still carry around with us; that still pops up to haunt us from time to time; that still scars us, in some deep, indelible way. We all have a “Buckner blooper” down in our souls somewhere, and we never know when it’s going to pop up and haunt us.)
Of course, all this makes no rational sense whatsoever. If there is one thing we all should have learned by now in our 30—or 50—or 60—or 80-something years on this planet, it’s that sometimes people in general, and each one of us in particular, is gonna mess up.
If you think of all the human interactions of which we are part—the countless interpersonal transactions we complete in the course of a day—there’s no surprise that, inevitably, we’re going to mess some of them up.
Let’s say that we complete 200 interactions in the course of a day: every single business transaction; every social interaction; every “hello” and “excuse me”; every “because I said so”; every “get your feet off the coffee table”. That would mean that we face at least 73,000 interactions in the course of a year. Which means that, if we only mess up 1% of them (and 99% is a good grade to strive for in most human endeavors, and it really is a good thing, I think, that most of us aren’t brain surgeons or air traffic controllers), that means that we’ll each make 730 mistakes in the course of a year. We can make 730 mistakes a year-- and still get an A+!
That’s a pretty good goal to seek. But it’s hardly perfection. It’s 730 reasons to feel regret; 730 times to wish we’d done it differently; 730 opportunities to know that we’re not perfect.
But, looking at it differently, those 730 screw ups can also give us hope. As Leo Buscaglia once said, “I pledge not to demand that you be perfect, until I am perfect myself. So, for now, we’re both safe.”
We don’t have to look at our imperfections as Mount Everests we have to scale to prove ourselves, or as great, insurmountable interpersonal walls that separate us from one another. Instead, we can see our imperfections as bridges that connect us to one another—pathways of our shared humanity—common ground that we can use as a foundation for sharing our stories with one another, and comforting one another, and learning from one another.
Human imperfection (and the deep humility which it ought to engender) is the basis of true compassion; and compassion, more than anything else, I think, is the basis of a living spirituality.
Listen to some more wise words from Rabbi Kushner:
But doesn’t Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, say, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”? That’s how the Greek word teleios is usually translated—as “perfect”. But teleios is also the root of the word “teleology”—the branch of philosophy that deals with ends or final causes, with explanations for why things are, and purpose, and meaning.
Jesus was not telling his listeners to live in a constant state of perfection, a constant state of flawlessness. He knew that that wasn’t possible. He was telling them to live a life full of life— to live life completely: with all of its purpose, and creativity, and wholeness, and integrity—and thus, inevitably, with all of its blemishes and contradictions and imperfections, as well.
“Be full of life. Be complete. Be whole—as God is whole.” Those might be better ways—more helpful ways-- to translate that particular passage.
Now, lest you think that sermon is nothing more than one great exercise in rationalization, let me also say that reminding ourselves that we aren’t perfect is not the same as saying that we ought not to try to do our best. As gifted, talented, creative human beings (which we all are, in so many diverse and amazing ways), we are called upon to be true to the best that is within us. It can be a handy excuse, I suppose, to say, “Well, I can’t be perfect, so I’m not going to do anything to better myself, my family, my community, or my world.”
But that isn’t the way to lead a life full of life, either. Being fully human doesn’t mean becoming a slug (nothing against slugs, mind you; they’re just not human people). There is a big difference between being a perfectionist (which is not healthy, in my opinion) and striving for excellence (which is certainly commendable). I will admit that the boundary between the two does gets fuzzy at times.
But you see, we have inside of us these internal barometers which help us to know the difference. Call it conscience, or intuition, or instinct, or the voice of God in the soul, or what have you; if we listen to it, and use it to help us weigh and measure our actions, then we can discern what’s going on inside. This internal barometer can help us to know the difference between perfectionism and excellence in our own lives, and in the way we treat others. Perfectionism and striving for excellence feel different from one another, deep down inside. How do they differ?
That most famous and prolific author “Anonymous” put it this way:
To which we might add:
“Life is not a spelling bee, where one mistake cancels out everything we have done right.” Nor is it the seventh game of the World Series, where there’s just one winner and just one loser. Nor is it the Super Bowl—where there’s only one “best team”—for that year, anyway.
Life is always Opening Day of another season of our living, another step along the way of our great pilgrimage.
In baseball, it is said, even the best hitters fail two times out of three, and even the best teams don’t win more than two-thirds of their games. Hey, even the New England Patriots lost four games this year, including three of them at home. But they’re still in the AFC championship game today; maybe even in the Super Bowl in a couple of weeks…
And what would you make of a politician with this track record:
We don’t have to be perfect.
We just need to take the time (and pay attention) to doing the best we can, and to living life as fully as we are able.
That’s plenty to keep us busy all the hours of our day. And it’s quite enough for us to enjoy all the glories and wonders that life has in store for us.
Life isn’t a game, and it isn’t an election. Life isn’t a question of just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that track.
Life is, I think, more like a garden: a garden of ever-wondrous flowers; none of them perfect; but almost all of them beautiful; all of them reflections of life, of the divine glory inherent in life. All of them enough unto themselves; all of them blessings to this Earth and to all of its creatures—just as they are, right now.