- thorns in bloom -
Every evening when I tune in the local news I see the same TV commercial in which a cosmetic dentist offers to design a “perfect smile” for anyone who might wish to take advantage of his services. The ad features “before and after” pictures of one of the doctor’s patients - in one photo, the patient’s teeth are covered in ugly stains with rough and jagged edges, and then in the next picture, the same person sports a “perfect smile," glistening white and without any flaws whatsoever. All made possible thanks to the cosmetic magic of the miracle-worker dentist.
Whenever I watch that commercial I am always struck with how phony and fake that “perfect smile” looks. I’m a big fan of good dental hygiene, but no one has teeth that white and so perfectly formed. In fact, that so-called “perfect smile” comes off as being sort of ludicrous to me.
So much of the popular culture of the day is a “culture of perfectionism.” Lots and lots of people aspire to have the perfectly tailored gym-body with the perfectly coiffed hair, the perfect skin and perfect teeth. Many people are always looking for that perfect job, the perfect family and the perfect house.
As I see it, this obsessive desire for perfection is perhaps no more clearly manifested than in the realm of religion and spirituality, and unfortunately the “striving for perfection” is perhaps the greatest pitfall anyone can fall into on any type of spiritual path.
Many people sit in a church and look up at stained glass pictures of a great saints or perhaps they sit in a temple and gaze upon a statue of the Buddha in all his enlightened splendor, and they think that truly “spiritual” people are supposed to be just as perfect as all those holy saints and gurus. Many people believe that “God” expects them to live a “sinless” life and those who do not meet these noble standards will be punished.
The truth is that while we so highly prize flawlessness, when it comes to the human condition, “perfection” is an illusion and when you “strive to be perfect” on a spiritual journey you inevitably fall into the pitfall of that illusion.
I know plenty of religious people who sit in church and hide 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.
No one has a perfect smile, some jagged edges and stains are natural and even beautiful, so it is with 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. 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 taught:
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 a perpetually perfect smile pasted 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, and so our vulnerability and not our perfection is the prize virtue on a spiritual journey.
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