The Joy of Imperfection
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 3, 2005
We are, each and every one of us, part and parcel of the unfolding universe itself; part and parcel of an indestructible Spirit of Life.
What a fragile thing each one of our little lives is, as well. A flicker of an instant, and it’s gone. But what power is encompassed within that fragility: each little life, imbued with the power to reason, to think, to create, to love. Our lives are fragile, but Life itself is indestructible.
Eastern religions teach us of the ultimate unity of all existence-- Brahman—the Tao-- the eternal cosmos, free of all duality and division and separation. Western religions teach us of the ultimate worth and dignity and beauty of each individual soul, each individual aspect of Creation—and of the responsibility each has to the development of the whole.
Perhaps in the confluence of these two great spiritual rivers—one from the East, and one from the West—we can learn what it truly means to be one with the flow of Life.
Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great voices of 20th Century American Protestantism, tells us: “Existence is what you find. Life is what you create.” And I once saw a poster in a card shop which 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. The great New England poet Longfellow summed it up so well:
I love these words; they ring true within me. But I also believe, deep down inside, 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: If we set perfection as our goal, and strive to meet that unmeetable 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, that 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—an amazing accomplishment! That’s something they ought to feel genuine pride in—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 over 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, this makes no rational sense whatsoever. If there is one thing we all should have learned by now in our 20—or 30—or 40—or 50—or 60—or 70—or 80-something years on this planet (I think that covers all of us), it’s that sometimes people in general, and each one of us in particular, is going to 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 (I’m talking about each particular, little interaction here: every single business transaction; every social transaction; every “hello” and “excuse me”; every “because I said so”; every “get your feet off the dashboard”). 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’s a good thing 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. Seven-hundred-thirty mistakes a year, and we still get an A+!
But that’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, it 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, we’re both safe.”
We don’t have to look at our imperfections as Mt. Everests we have to scale, or as interpersonal Berlin Walls that separate us and alienate us from one another. We can, instead, see our imperfections as bridgesbetween one another—pathways of our shared humanity—common ground that we can use as a base for sharing our stories with one another, and learning from one another, and comforting one another.
Human imperfection 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 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 lives free of fault—to live in a constant state of perfection, a constant state of flawlessness. He was telling them to live a life full of life— to live life, 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, whole—as God is whole…” might be a better way to translate that 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, spirited, creative human beings (which we all are, in so many wonderfully diverse and different 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 to lead a life full of life, either. Being fully human doesn’t mean becoming a slug, either (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.
However, you see, we have 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 of us. This internal barometer helps us to know the difference between perfectionism and excellence in our own lives. They feel different from one another, deep down inside. How are they different?
That most famous writer “Anonymous” once wrote:
To which we might add:
As I said on Easter, life is seven times down and eight times up, the Buddha once taught. We kid ourselves if we think we’re going to be “up”-- “on top of the world”-- all the time. But we have deep within our souls, resilient like April, the strength and tenacity we need to get up when we’re down, and back into the game of life.
“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.
Life is always Opening Day of another season of our living, another journey along the way of our 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.
In our own lives, we can do at least as well as that! For life is even more wonderful than baseball is. It is even more complicated and unpredictable. For more than a game, life is 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 all of life, of the divine glory of life. All of them enough unto themselves; all of them blessings to this Earth and to all of its creatures.
We don’t have to be perfect.
We just need to take the time (and pay the attention) to be.
And that will be enough—quite enough for all the glories and wonders that life has in store for us.