Addicted to Perfection

 

Relinquishing the “Addiction to Perfection”

 

            Western civilization is “addicted to perfection.”[1] We are taught from childhood to drive ourselves, to “make our best better,”[2] to compete in ever-more-competitive arenas, never to be satisfied, but to keep raising the bar or level of standard that we set for ourselves. We operate in the belief that perfection is desirable, if not actually possible.

            Question this belief in the value of perfection as an ideal, and many Western (or Westernized) people will defend it as part of orthodox Christian dogma, citing the more than two dozen references to perfection in the New Testament.[3] But what most people don’t realize is that Christian orthodoxy, and all the subsequent cultural developments related to it, are built on a fundamental mistranslation of the five Greek words used in the New Testament for “perfection.”

The Roots of Our Addiction to Perfection

            The five Greek words are teleiw, ‘oloklhros, katartizw, epitelew, and plhrow. teleiw means “to complete, fulfill, finish, or bring an end to.” ‘oloklhros is an adjective meaning “entire, complete, in all its parts,” compounded of two words meaning “whole” (‘olos) and “allotment” (klhris).katartizw means “to furnish completely, to readjust, or put in order again.” epitelew is a compound verb based on telew, meaning “to complete, finish or accomplish.” And plhrow means “to make complete or full; to fulfill.” These words occur repeatedly in statements made by Jesus, Paul, John, James, and Peter that urge us (in the orthodox version) to “be perfect,”[4] “be made perfect,”[5] “aim for perfection,”[6] “attain perfection,”[7] “present everyone perfect,”[8] “make perfect those who draw near to worship,”[9] “be righteous men made perfect,”[10] and “be a perfect man.”[11] The original Greek, however, had something quite different in mind.

            The authors of the New Testament drew upon sources that were written by men thoroughly steeped in the Hebraic concepts of ancient Judaism. Jesus was familiar with these concepts, including that of shalom. Shalom is rich in meanings and impossible to render in a single English word. It is usually translated as “peace,” but “peace” in the sense of the peace of mind and spirit that comes from being in harmony with Creation, being in a state of wholeness or fulfillment. When Jesus urged people to be “perfect” (Greek teleioi), very likely he had the concept of shalom in mind. That is, he was really urging them to live, work and strive toward the peace that comes from completeness or wholeness—not a private or shallow wholeness, but a wholeness that “ensouls the world.”[12] Jesus was calling people to fulfillment in the fullness of their humanity, to focus on achieving the glorious end appointed to all persons by virtue of their humanity. Jesus recognized what a wonderful blessing it is to be incarnated in a human body, to enjoy life in materiality, to absorb the lessons that are possible for a soul to learn only while on the physical plane. He also knew each of us has a unique set of talents and a particular destiny—that special purpose, work or service that we are meant to fulfill.

This is the true meaning of  teleios. If we want to reach our goal, to complete our life’s mission, to know the peace of shalom, the satisfaction of fulfillment, we must give up money-grubbing, let go of grasping and selfishness, and follow Jesus’s example. This has nothing to do with perfection, and everything to do with realizing our divinely-appointed destiny.

            When Paul urged the people of Corinth to “aim for perfection,”[13] the verb he used (katartizw) meant “to work to become complete, healed, mended or restored.” Likewise, with James, John and the author of Hebrews. They exhort us to become whole, integrated, healed, fully accomplished in the development of our divine gifts. The goal of life, in other words, is to reach our appointed end, much as an acorn realizes its destiny in growing into a glorious oak tree.

            So what happened? How did the original meaning get lost? Students of this issue target the patriarchal bias of “spirit-based” religion, which focuses on the disembodied spirit, and plays down the soul and the physical plane. The spirit world is ungrounded, out of touch with physical life.[14] As the product of mentation, the spirit lives in abstractions, focused on ideals. In the rarefied world of spirit, perfection is one attribute of the Divine, one of the Platonic ideals.

            In the several centuries after Jesus’s death, as the New Testament canon was developed, neo-Platonic influences crept into Christianity, showing up most clearly in the interpretation of the five terms noted above. Rather than the original focus on shalom, wholeness or completion, realizing one’s innate human powers, the focus shifted to the unrealizable ideal of perfectability.

            By this point, you might find yourself saying, “OK. That’s all very interesting, but why does it matter to me? What does it have to do with waking up and the leap frog option?” Here’s the connection.

Why This Matters to Those Waking Up and Leap Frogging    

            The whole issue of perfectionism is crucial to the leap frog and wake up processes for many reasons. First is the fact that the quest for perfection is a hopeless endeavor, which is why it becomes an addiction. Trying to be perfect is a foolproof strategy to foster guilt, shame, self-hatred and a sense of personal inadequacy. In our patriarchal culture, the notion of perfection as the goal or standard served church leaders well, in terms of keeping control over people, because it encourages feelings of powerlessness and despair. It also breeds fear and anxiety, because of the evaluation and judgment that perfectionism implies.

            Another reason why leap froggers and people waking up need to avoid perfectionism is that it blocks play. Although the puritanical elements in the Christian hierarchy will never admit it, we human beings are meant to be playful. This is what Jesus meant when he spoke of the need to become like children.[15] When we have a child-like (not childish!) engagement with the world, we can relax, play, and respond to reality with awe and wonder. We become creative. Perfectionism kills creativity. Those who wish to support the leap frog option must play with The Force as much as, or more than, they pray to The Force. In our playful activities our true prayer emerges.

            A third reason why perfectionism is antithetical to leap frogging and waking up is that perfectionism warps our imagination. One of our most important human abilities is imagination. Western culture, of course, denigrates this gift (think how many times you have heard, or been told, “Oh, that’s only your imagination!”). But our ability to make images, to identify with others, to see ourselves in situations different from the physical reality immediately before us, to cast ourselves into the future and create powerful, attractive visions of what might be—this human power is central to our creativity and to making a better world. And this is what leap frogging is all about.

            A fourth reason to avoid perfectionism is that it blunts compassion. It does this indirectly, by first inducing sadomasochism, a self-hatred that then turns outward to become callousness toward others. “Compassion” literally means “a suffering with.” Perfectionism fosters the tendency to avoid all forms of suffering, making it impossible for us to engage with or get into our own suffering. Perfectionism likes to live in the spirit world, the world of the head, the realm of cold logic and neat theory. There is nothing theoretical about compassion and suffering (as the Greek word for compassion–splagcnizomai–lit. “to turn one’s bowels over”—attests). In its very nature compassion is not about perfection. It pulls us into our physicality, to be aware of our own imperfection. When we focus on being perfect, we cannot be compassionate.

            As part of our human “shadow,” perfectionism also leads to all sorts of ego issues, because it splits off the shadow.[16] Either it fosters egotism (thinking we are better than others) or it turns into the flip side of egotism, i.e. feelings of inferiority and inadequacy. But the reality is that we all are in the cosmic soup together, all of us struggling with our shadow side, all of us basically equal as we try to play the game of life as best we can. Perfectionism hinders our recognizing our basic equality.

            Leap frogging and waking up are all about becoming aware of the beliefs, assumptions, and societal systems that have kept us down, encouraged negative self-images, and fostered feelings of powerlessness. As we wake up, we adopt new ways of thinking, with new standards and new understandings. Prime among these is the understanding of who we are and where we are bound, as human beings on the journey we call “life.”

            As human beings, each of us is blessed with many gifts. We are also:

·      unique in our set of gifts and talents (no one else has the exact combination we have)

·      unique in our purpose and mission in life

·      precious in the special role and function we are here to perform

·      guided in the lessons we are here to learn

·      equipped with the full range of abilities and resources to achieve the goals we took upon ourselves before we incarnated

·      and meant to realize our being in all its fullness

“There is a part of every living thing that wants to become itself.”[17] This is what teleios means: not that we should seek to be perfect, but that we should strive to attain shalom, or fulfillment, to reach the goal or completion of the unique life journey we chose to undertake. We consciously allow ourselves “to be less in order to be more—less nearly perfect, but more nearly whole.”[18]

            Perfectionism also blocks change. As paradoxical as it may seem, we transform our weaknesses only when we fully and joyfully accept them in ourselves. The more we live in denial or try to escape from imperfection, the more we stay stuck with it.[19]

            Waking up has many components. Some of these are part of the process of fulfilling our being. For example, when we wake up, we discover our gifts. This includes coming to understand and appreciate how what may seem like liabilities or handicaps may actually be of great benefit. When we wake up, we come to recognize our uniqueness—how we are different from anyone else on earth, and that this is not only OK, but wonderful (and this recognition frees us from any tendency to envy or copy others, or to look to others to validate our actions or identity). When we wake up, we identify our mission in life, why we were born in the time, place and circumstance we chose, what this life is about for us, and how we are meant to serve others. When we wake up, we appreciate how precious each person is in the microcosm (daily life) and macrocosm (the wider scheme of global reality). When we wake up, we start getting wise to what the lessons are that we are meant to learn, and then we set to work with conscious intention on learning them. When we wake up, we develop our abilities and become aware of the many forms that our “resources” can take (which are much more varied than just “money”). As we widen our sense of “resources,” we come to appreciate just how loving and supportive The Force is.

            The addiction to perfection sidetracks these activities. It works to keep us asleep. And therefore it is something we must consciously recognize and work to avoid.[20]

Some Questions for Reflection

Am I addicted to perfection? In my work, do I find myself constantly “raising the bar” or standard I demand of myself or others?

Am I able to be easy on myself, to relax and play, to let go and allow the world to be, just as it is, without feelings of discontent, or attitudes of judgment?

Have I gotten down into my own “stuff” sufficiently to know the meaning of suffering? Am I able to identify with others who suffer?

Do I find that I play “one-up-manship” in my interactions with others, comparing myself to other people, or am I able to relate to others as peers?

Do I envy others or have feelings of jealousy for what others have or are?

Did my childhood encourage me to perfectionism: Did I grow up with criticism and evaluation? Was there strong sibling rivalry that left me feeling compared to others? What is my sense of self-image?

As I allow myself space, time and patience to hear my intuitive voice of wisdom, how am I guided to respond to the ideas of this essay?

 

For Further Reading

Anderson, Sherry & Patricia Hopkins (1991), The Feminine Face of God: The Unfolding of the Sacred in Women. New York: Bantam.

Edinger, Edward (1985), Anatomy of the Psyche. Chicago & LaSalle IL: Open Court Press.

Fox, Matthew (1983), Original Blessing. Santa Fe: Bear & Co.

Hammer, Paul (1976), The Gift of Shalom. Philadelphia: United Church Press.

Jung, C.G. (1959), “Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lammers, Ann Conrad (1994), In God’s Shadow: The Collaboration of Victor White and C.G. Jung. New York: Paulist Press.

Moore, Thomas (1992), Care of the Soul. New York: HarperCollins.

Woodman, Marion (1982), The Addiction to Perfection. Toronto: Inner City Books.



[1] The term “addiction to perfection” is the title of a book by Jungian analyst Marion Woodman, based on her clinical practice and Jung’s own writings about perfectionism. Cf. Woodman (1982), 51-52; and Jung (1959), 68.

[2] This is the motto of the American 4-H Clubs, an organization similar to the Boy and Girl Scouts.

[3] E.g. Matt. 5:48; Matt. 19:21; Luke 13:32; John 17:23; Acts 3:16; I Cor. 2:6; 2 Cor. 12:9; 2 Cor. 13:9; 2 Cor. 13:11; Gal. 3:3; Eph. 4:13; Phil. 3:12; Phil. 3:15; Col. 1:28; Col. 4:12; Heb. 2:10; Heb. 5:9; Heb. 6:1; Heb. 7:19; Heb. 9:9; Heb. 10:1; Heb. 11:40; Heb. 12:23; Heb. 13:21; James 1:4; James 2:22; James 3:2; I Pet. 5:10; I John 4:17

[4] Matt. 5:48; Matt. 19:21.

[5] Heb. 11:40.

[6] 2 Cor. 13:11.

[7] Gal. 3:3.

[8] Col. 1:28.

[9] Heb. 10:1.

[10] Heb. 12:23.

[11] James 3:2.

[12] Brussat & Brussat (1996), 435.

[13] 2 Cor. 13:11.

[14] Cf. Woodman (1982), 15-16, 55-57; Moore (1992), 232, 247-252; Fox (1983), 62; Anderson & Hopkins (1991), 193, on the differences between a spirit-based religion and a soul-based spirituality.

[15] Luke 18:17.

[16] Lammers (1994), 303.

[17] Ellen Bass, in Brussat & Brussat (1996), 434.

[18] Edinger (1985), 161.

[19] Brussat & Brussat (1996), 409.

[20]By urging an avoidance of perfectionism, I don’t intend to condone lax standards or encourage poor quality. Not at all! Part of personal integrity is a commitment to doing one’s best in any situation. But this is very different from holding the impossible goal of perfection.

 

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