Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Culture of Perfectionism

"Perfect Simplicity"
-in my garden-

It's "Graduation" season, and all across the country students are hearing speech after speech wishing them well and launching them into the world. In my web browsing yesterday,  I came across an excerpt from one of those many commencement speeches, but there was something about one of them that really made me stop and pay attention to it.

The speaker concluded her address by quoting from something author Anne Lamont once said:

Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you are 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn't go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life?

It's going to break your heart. Don't let this happen. 

When I read this yesterday I thought that this may be the best piece of advice those graduates might ever hear in their lives.  I sure wish someone would have said this to me when I was sitting in those chairs graduating from college or high school (or from seminary). Instead the advice I usually got was, "If you can't do it right, don't do it at all."

In my later years of life I now wonder what "doing it right" actually meant?  

We live in a culture of perfectionism. If you get a "B+" it's not as good as an "A,"so work harder. Every day we are inundated with images of that perfect body, the perfect teeth, the perfect skin and perfect hair.  The perfect athletes are on the field or the basketball court. The perfect family with the two kids and a dog live in the perfect house with the two-car garage.  But for most of us, we can never even hope to achieve those heights of perfection, and so because we are less than perfect we either live lives of quiet disappointment or perhaps we don't even try.

I think of my own life growing up as a boy in school. I always thought I might like to paint pictures, but I wasn't anywhere near as good an artist as some of the other kids in the class and my teachers made sure I understood this, so I never even tried.  I thought I might like to play on a team, but I was pretty uncoordinated and was basically that kid who was the last to be chosen for the "dodge ball" game. So I mostly just sat on the sidelines because I didn't want to show how less than perfect I was. 

Throughout most of my life I was taught to be a people pleaser - always striving for a "perfection" - a  perfection that never even existed.  Other people were always defining what it meant to do it "right," and if I couldn't do it right, I wouldn't do it at all. 

Thankfully a lot has changed for me in my later years.

The Jesuit priest, Anthony De Mello once said:

After I turned 20 I worried endlessly about how people were evaluating me. Only after turning 50 did I realize that they hardly even thought of me at all.

In my later years, it's not so much that I don't care about what other people think of me,  it's just that I now realize other people aren't even paying that much attention to me at all.  They never did, but my big ego never allowed me to understand that in the past.

I have "turned my back" on a culture of perfectionism.  I want to spend my days living a "big juicy creative life." 

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