Perfectibility, Not Perfectionism

I’m glad to tell you that Gloria is here, and I’m totally in love with her. She is soft, sweet, playful, doing what puppies do—chewing and jumping and tugging, spilling water bowls (or splashing in them with her chubby paws). And oh my goodness the innocence that just pours out of her, as she experiences everything with such excitement and interest. This has been a joyful week for me as I watch her get comfortable with her new home and make connections with her four-footed sisters.

Of course, we’re also all adjusting, and that means there is a lot of learning going on. Trial and error, puddles on the carpet, and snarls from Olive when Gloria gets too close to her favorite toys are all part of daily life right now. I’m feeling the squeeze of adjustment, too, as I remember what it’s like to have a baby in the house, trying to anticipate her needs and learn to read her signals, attempting to calmly, gracefully lead our animal-blessed household toward a natural and peaceful rhythm.

But it will take some time. Gloria won’t understand everything right off the bat, and neither will I. We will learn, day by day, together.

It’s all such a process, this learning, getting comfortable, building relationships, adjusting. It makes me think in a bigger sense about how we go through these lives we live—unfolding slowly, learning what we need to know, bumping into walls, making wrong turns, making messes, cleaning them up, and gradually—over time—beginning to see things a little more clearly, a little more truly, as our understanding and experience and spirit opens and deepens, learning to listen and receive. That learning flows into our life experiences and because of it we make better and better choices as we go along. That’s how we grow.

Children—and puppies—are naturally good at taking in and enjoying what life offers them. They are open, porous, ready to experience and play with of all the good things that comes their way. Gloria can make a great game out of a shadow on the floor. Or an open dishwasher door. There’s a sacred tenderness in the innocent energy kids and baby animals have—they just know that life is about joy, and they are earnest, exuberant, and all-in as they live fully in the moment. Life is energy, fun, play, with no bigger purpose than to get the most out of each moment we’re given.

As we get older, though, many of us lose touch with that natural feeling of freedom and play we had when we were kids. Now that we’re trying to be grownups, life comes with a certain set of expectations. We need to do the responsible thing, and so life feels more serious. We play less. Some of us—especially in early or middle adulthood—go through a season when we feel overwhelmed and buried beneath so many responsibilities, not sure how to shoulder it all and find some peace and safety in the middle of it all. While all this is going on, we also might be healing up old hurts from our past, at the same time we’re trying to steer our children away from the challenges we faced.

There’s a poem called Autobiography in Five Short Chapters, by Portia Nelson, that says something about the gradual way we grow through challenges in our lives:

Chapter I. I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost…I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I’m in the same place. But, it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in…it’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.

Chapter IV. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.

Chapter V. I walk down another street.

There may be many good reasons we lose touch with that sense of innocent, joyful freedom that still lives within us. It may just be age. After a certain point, nobody expects to see us out in our yards making snow angels. Or blowing bubbles. Or playing baseball with the neighborhood kids.

Sometimes it can be our own expectations of ourselves—our desire to be perfect–that robs us of our joy. I come from a long line of perfectionists and I’m sure it’s coded right into my DNA. My Grandma Libbert kept a spotless house, had a long set of rules for what was proper and what wasn’t, and I think she tried very hard to live up to all her own rather strict and colorless demands. She was a quiet lady, a bit grim, not the huggable kind of grandma with a big warm lap and lots of forgiveness. Many of my memories of her have something to do her chiding my great-grandmother for indulging me too much–which she probably did.

Psychologists say perfectionism is a personality trait that causes people to strive for flawlessness—“good enough” isn’t good enough—and they set high standards for themselves and then criticize themselves harshly when they fall short. Maybe you’ve known folks like that or had those tendencies yourself. When I was younger, perfectionism was part of my story. It felt like I was wrapped in a straight jacket, with a critical voice in my head always telling me what I was doing wrong. Part of the trap of perfectionism is that we believe we have to keep working really hard to make ourselves better—and we rarely feel a sense of ease or can let ourselves relax. There’s not much room for joy–or for grace–when we are working so hard to measure up.

Our Old Testament reading today offers a better, more graceful way to create a balanced life that has more life and self-kindness in it and is both responsible and joyful. The psalmist suggests that when we listen to and follow God’s teachings, they not only provide the parameters for a well-lived life, but they also nourish and refresh our hearts. We need that. Each verse speaks to our intellectual adult selves—the parts of us trying to live within rules and social norms—and also to our tender hearts, yearning for sweetness and connection and light. They explain how living within God’s direction brings us back to the joy in ourselves:

“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.”

This is not about living a life that is flawless in the way a perfectionistic person might go about it. Instead, it’s about letting the light of God into our hearts and minds and watching it gradually change us and bless us and bring us joy, from the inside out. This is what George Fox was talking about when he introduced the idea of perfectibility to the people of his day.

It was in 1648 that George Fox began speaking as a “preacher of new things.” He had been teaching that people were missing the point when they magnified the importance of scripture. He said the divine illumination that inspired the scripture was the important thing. The “inner light” had moved the writers to speak and write as they did, and we each have, he insisted, that had that same inner light within us. If we trust the leading of God’s light, our souls can be made perfect in this world, even here, even now. He felt that those preaching about the fallen, sinful nature of humankind were furthering a doctrine of despair, and Fox was adamant that that was not the God he knew.

In one particularly loud and challenging meeting, someone asked Fox whether he was sanctified—which means set apart, consecrated, holy–Fox answered, “Yes, for I am in the paradise of God,” which sounded blasphemous to those gathered. But Fox was speaking what he knew experientially, what we heard in Psalm 19: “the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.”

This perfectibility Fox wrote and spoke about wasn’t perfectionism, it was loving and light-filled transformation. Perfectionism puts the focus on us and our relentless efforts to be perfect; but perfectibility puts the focus on God as we let God’s Light shine into our hearts and take the lead in our lives. We are the receivers of the gift—that’s all we have to do. And that gradually brings us back in touch with the innate joy still alive at the center of our souls.

This is the kind of perfection Jesus was talking about in our New Testament scripture. He was telling the disciples that doing what everybody else does—loving your own family, being kind to your own friends—isn’t enough if we want to be part of the flow of God’s love and grace in this world. God doesn’t divide and judge people and reserve blessings for God’s favorites. Rather God gives and loves freely, leading us step by step by step toward a more perfect and universal love. That’s perfectibility, through the ever-present leading of the holy spirit.

I’m glad to say that in my own life, perfectionism lost its hold on me long ago. Today I’m much more comfortable with my life unfolding—even when it’s messy and unpredictable–because I know God is there leading the way. It’s a big comfort and the source of our joy: no matter where we are or what we face, God is in it with us. And God has always and will always guide us forward, as we let love be perfected in us.

In the meantime, we can let our hearts be touched, warmed, and inspired by things that bring us joy—playing with puppies, planning this summer’s garden, visiting friends, playing, laughing, loving. Maybe we could give ourselves a little more time to play–be silly, do something unexpected, have fun. Rediscover how wonderful it feels to live in sync with that joyful, life-giving flow of spirit. Like George Fox, we also can live “in the paradise of God,” right here and right now, discovering experientially for ourselves that opening to the light makes all the difference. Even better than being good, even better than being perfect, is the beautiful realization that when we truly love our lives, that gratitude blesses everything and everyone around us. And I believe it also makes God smile.



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