Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Perfect Smile

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

Last evening I watched a TV commercial in which a local cosmetic dentist offered to give a “perfect smile” to anyone who might wish to take advantage of his services. The ad featured “before and after” pictures: in one photo, a person’s teeth were all stained and jagged and then in the next, the same person for whom the dentist had crafted a “perfect smile, the teeth were glistening white and without any flaws.

As I watched that commercial yesterday I was immediately struck with the fact of how phony and fake that perfect smile looked. I’m a big fan of good dental hygiene, but no one has teeth that white and so perfectly formed. In fact that perfect smile was so fake that it almost looked somewhat ludicrous to me.

The commercial yesterday once again illustrated just how much the popular culture of the day is a “culture of perfectionism.” Lots and lots of people aspire to the perfect body with the perfect hair and the perfect teeth, that perfect look, the perfect job, the perfect family and the perfect house. And as I see it, there is perhaps nowhere in the culture where the desire for perfection is more clearly manifested than in the realm of religion and spirituality.

Many religious people struggle for perfection and just as many people keep away from religion because they believe their own lives are too flawed to meet the high standards that being religious demands.

Lots of people think that their their "religion" expects them to live a “sinless” life and those who do not meet these noble standards are punished and excommunicated - perfect faith, no doubts, moral and upright in every way or you get thrown away.  

I know plenty of religious people who sit in church hiding behind the expected perfect smile of a supposedly flawless life, too fearful or ashamed to embrace their “less than perfect” qualities - their doubts, mistakes, failures or their secret sins.

The truth is that while we so highly prize flawlessness, when it comes to the human condition, “perfection” is an illusion.

Just as no one has a perfect smile, jagged edges and stains are natural to the lives of every human being. We are loving, compassionate and forgiving and we are also judgmental and spiteful, we have faith and we also have our invariable doubts, we are hopeful and yet we despair, honest and yet we deceive - we live in the shadows and we live in the light.

Whether we are religious or spiritual but not religious or agnostic or atheist, each and every one of us human beings are a wonderful mix of light and darkness all rolled up together and paradoxically we need our shadows in order to walk in the light.

The ancient Greeks used to teach:

The gods wounded us so that they would have a way to enter our lives

In the Christian Scriptures Saint Paul pretty much says the same thing when he teaches

In our weakness is our strength

When we embrace our weaknesses and imperfections rather than pretending to have that “perfect” life with the perpetually perfect smile on our faces, we allow ourselves to become vulnerable enough to love.  When we are vulnerable enough to embrace our flaws we let down the protective walls of our defensive ego and reach out to others for healing, help and comfort.

Oddly enough love can enter our lives most abundantly when we are broken enough to allow love to enter in.

I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

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