Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Spirituality of Imperfection

"Light and Shadows"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

There have been a number of "back-to school" stories in the news over the past few days, but one particular radio report on NPR yesterday really grabbed my attention. Apparently there is a movement among American elementary school educators - a significant refocusing of fundamental core assumptions about the purpose of education for kids in their earlier years of schooling.  

For the past several decades the underlying goal was to assure that kids would experience "success" while in school. It was assumed that kids would experience success by not experiencing failure, and that this would build up the child's self-esteem, encouraging a student to flourish. 

I know first-hand of a school that gave out achievement awards for excellence in subjects like math or science, but the school's philosophy was that, at one point or another, every student in the school should be given some sort of award so that no one would feel left out.  By the end of the year kids were getting awards for being good at volleyball or coming to school on time. 

Teachers have now come to believe that this "success and no failure" approach was basically setting kids up for ultimate failure in real life. If you think you should not or cannot fail, you will be sadly disappointed when you don't get that job you applied for or when your boss tells you how badly you messed up at work. Everyone experiences failure, and mistakes are inevitable in life. In fact, sometimes we learn the most and are the most successful by the way in which we learn from and handle failure. 

I think there are some valuable lessons here to help refocus some basic assumptions about the goals of the spiritual life. 

Growing up as a boy fashioned in a fairly traditional Catholic-Christian mindset, I was taught to believe that the goal of my religion was to help me to be perfect. "Sin" was failure - and failure was unacceptable in the eyes of God.  I was taught to obey a strict moral code and if I were to deviate from that code I needed to confess my failure so that my soul could be cleansed and returned again to walk in the perfect way of the righteous.

In a sense this demand that I should strive to be perfect inevitably set me up for failure. I wasn't supposed to get angry or fight or hurt others. I was supposed to obey my teachers and parents and ignore any sexual urges, so of course I failed; I failed all the time. And so I could either admit the failure or more likely "put on my church face" and pretend they never happened.

Priest and author, Richard Rohr argues that we grow spiritually wise only when we embrace our imperfections. In fact a "spirituality of perfection" needs to be replaced with a "spiritually of imperfection" on any path to the truth. He writes:

I suppose there is no more counterintuitive idea than that of using and integrating what we fear, avoid, deny and deem unworthy as necessary to our growth and maturity in the spiritual life. 

We all have our better angels and yet no one is free of their demons. We are beautiful creatures of the light capable of great kindness and unbridled compassion. And yet, each of us also lives in dark shadows, capable of inflicting injury and tearing apart, self-centered and indulgent.  In our lives most of us will do great good and we will also do harm- perhaps at times great harm. We all fail and we all make mistakes. 

The spiritual path never calls us to be perfect. It calls us to recognize our imperfections and teaches us to pick one another up when we inevitably fall and fail and falter along the way. 

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