“Let it be what you can’t yet imagine and wouldn’t orchestrate even if you could.” We heard Cheryl Strayed say that a moment ago, speaking as online advice columnist “Sugar” to someone angsting about the potential imperfections of her upcoming wedding. “There’s a day in July that’s a shimmering slice of your mysterious destiny. All you’ve got to do is show up.” “We all get lost in the minutiae, but don’t lose this day.”
It brings to mind my own wedding thirty-one years ago, to my now ex-wife. It was not a church wedding; we had not yet discovered Unitarian Universalism. It was in the Texas A&M University ballroom at its main campus in College Station, Texas. Flowers, candles, music—all absolutely lovely.
But there were problems too, and we easily could have lost the day.
Some of it had to do with the state of my ex father-in-law. I remember him in his army dress blues but with a face all pale and beaded with sweat because he was in utter pain as he walked the gorgeous bride/his daughter up the aisle. Not long before, he had had a freak accident with a stepstool—he had stepped off in a crazy awkward way and wrecked his ankle, broken it so thoroughly that he was unable to walk for several months and was eventually declared ineligible to serve in Operation Desert Storm. The pain continued to be so great that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to walk his daughter up the aisle.
But he did it. I remember how: legs limping, but with eyes resolute. Not how he’d ever imagined himself at his eldest daughter’s wedding. It wasn’t what he wanted, but it was what he got. And he showed up.
He didn’t lose the day.
Same goes for my ex father-in-law’s mother, a tough-as-nails goat-herding Texan with a silly side too. Like everyone, I called her Mama. Years later at another wedding Mama and I danced to some K.C and the Sunshine Band and she lost herself so thoroughly to the disco beat that she spun herself dizzy and fell down and I thought I had broken the family matriarch! I was horrified! But not really—she just got up and giggled and we kept on dancing.
During my wedding, though, Mama was NOT giggling—because of the official photographer. The official photographer showed up to our wedding with an impressive ego to match the impressive number of cameras he’d slung around his neck. But he was AWOL when important stuff was happening—like the groom’s cake being cut. My cake, in the green shape of Michelangelo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fame. We’re cutting into this masterpiece, but where’s the photographer? Laura and I are stuffing cake into each other’s faces, but where’s the photographer? Now it’s the wedding couple’s first dance—oh, yeah, there he is … but his fancy equipment isn’t working. The flash won’t go off.
It turned out to be one thing after another with this drama queen of a photographer, and it was tempting to get lost in this minutiae, but Mama saved the day. She did NOT lose control and smack him like she might smack a wayward goat. She kept her cool. She pulled one disposable Fujifilm camera after another out of her purse and took all the pictures that the professional was supposed to take.
The only photos we still have of our wedding come from her three-dollar disposables.
Literally, she did not lose the day. And, despite the mishaps and mayhem, things came together to make an unforgettable day that we could neither imagine nor orchestrate and would not have wanted to orchestrate even if we could.
That was the shimmering slice of our mysterious destiny, all of thirty-one years ago.
But it’s not just weddings that I am talking about. Every day is a day we might lose or save, depending on how we face down the demon called PERFECTIONISM. This is, I hasten to add, a very different thing from competency. I am not preaching mediocrity, not at all. I am not saying that we should not care about quality. Competency and quality are important—God knows that we needed to see more of that in how the U.S government addressed Covid-19 during the Trump administration. We needed to see more of it in how the U.S. conducted the war in Afghanistan from the beginning 20 years ago to the recent pullout. Competency and quality matter—and the reason why perfectionism is so particularly pernicious is that it is, in fact, an obstacle to competency and quality. It really is. “I am always doing what I cannot do yet,” said Vincent Van Gogh, “in order to learn how to do it.” But perfectionism makes you deathly afraid of making the inevitable mistakes that are a necessary part of the journey towards learning how to be competent and achieve quality.
And then sometimes, even the most competent and qualified among us are thrown curve balls, and all you can do is do your best.
The demon problem is perfectionism. So now consider fictional race car driver Ricky Bobby, in that hilarious Will Ferrell cinematic classic called “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” Ricky Bobby’s mantra is: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” He’d heard that saying from his Dad as a young boy and let it guide him all his life. “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” Later in the film, he and his Dad are talking, and Ricky brings it up. Dad’s response: “Huh? What are you talking about, Son?”
“That day at school.”
“Oh [heck], Son, I was high that day. That doesn’t make any sense at all, you can be second, third, fourth … [heck] you can even be fifth.”
Hearing this, Ricky replies, “What? I’ve lived my whole life by that!” And that is the way of perfectionism. Perfectionism, when seen from a wiser perspective, makes no sense at all. It tries to convince us that it’s a one-way ticket to happiness, but it never pans out. Perfectionism whispers to us, “If you try very hard and you’re very careful and you follow all the rules, everything will go right and everyone will love you and you’ll feel good all the time.” But perfectionism is a liar. What you get instead is low self-esteem, poor-me mentality, burnout, procrastination, sadness, stagnation, rigidity, judgmentalism, hypercriticality, anger, even obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Perfectionism makes no sense at all. But that doesn’t stop it from having power over us. If you’re American and middle class and white, perfectionism is part of the culture you’ve been born into, which punishes failure to achieve the American Dream and makes that failure always personal. When others of whatever race or class fail, you make it their personal fault and heap abuse on them. When you yourself fail, you either turn that viciousness back upon yourself, or you find some scapegoat beyond yourself to hate.
Or you do both at the same time.
The dominant culture of middle-class whiteness puts perfectionism in people. And, yes, so do the individuals in our lives. Just like Ricky Bobby, you hear a parent or loved one say something or do something that teaches perfectionism, and years later, here we are, repeating it as if it’s the Gospel truth: “If you’re not first, you’re last.”
All of this is no doubt why the good Roman Catholic brothers of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, located close to where I used to live in Atlanta, regularly offer a “Spirituality of Imperfection” retreat. It’s desperately needed because perfectionism makes so many of us lose our days. Not long after my divorce to my ex-wife Laura became official, back in 2013, I went to it. I spent several days and nights there at the monastery, worshipping with the monks five times a day. Chanting plainsong which sounded something like this:
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
until the destroying storms pass by.
My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast.
I will sing and make melody.
Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn.
I ‘d been to the monastery before, so I knew about the worship and the amazing experience of chanting the psalms from the Hebrew scriptures. But I had never before actually interacted with any of the monks, and it was, to say the least, eye-opening. Another one of those “let it be what you can’t yet imagine and wouldn’t orchestrate even if you could” experiences…
Brother Michael was the first monk I met. A one-time school teacher and travel agent with a big smile and a gleam in his eye, he was the monastery’s main recruiter and shared plenty of asides about this part of his work. To aspiring monks, he likes to say, “you will never find the perfect monastery because, as soon as you enter, it becomes imperfect.” He says, referring to his fellow monks, “I don’t have to get married. I have 35 wives.” Again and again, he points out that the key ingredients of successful monastic life are openness and flexibility, because (as he says) “it’s not like the brochure.”
Now, think about our own community of West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church. Everything Brother Michael has just said applies, I believe, to us. “It’s not like the brochure.” Openness and flexibility are key ingredients for making our community here successful, too. Our aspiration to be a Beloved Community means we are always on the way there but not there yet.
And that has to be ok. Perfectionism is the enemy of the really, really good.
Then there was another monk I met at the monastery: Brother Elias. No big smiles from him. He was quiet and intense. At one point, he shared what he calls his “mini-exorcism prayer” which is: “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave me, Satan, demons, and spirits!” The other folks in the room with me were Catholics and so maybe they were used to this. Me, the sole Unitarian Universalist? Translating furiously.
Trying to keep my eyebrows from smashing into the ceiling.
But soon after this, Brother Elias went on to mercilessly tick off flaws in the translation of key Bible words relevant to the topic at hand. For example, in the Bible passage that says, “Be ye perfect even as your heavenly father is perfect,” the original word that got translated as “perfect” is better translated as “mature” or “healthy and sound.” “This misinterpretation has plagued people for hundreds of years!” Brother Elias thundered. Then we went on to discuss the phrase “Fear of the Lord.” Again, another mistranslation. “Wonder” or “reverence” or “awe” does better justice to the original word than “fear.” The Bible, argued Brother Elias, speaks in the language of relationship and growth, but with all the mistranslations, you’d never realize that. Then he mentioned how, one day, he’d shared his concerns with a key Bible authority high up in the Catholic hierarchy. Brother Elias asked that authority, point blank, “Why are these mistranslations allowed to remain in the scriptures and in the liturgy?”
The answer he got?
“I don’t know.”
Brother Elias knows full well he is sustained by an imperfect religious tradition, and yet, it’s good enough. Demand perfection, and, honestly, no tradition is left standing, no tradition is worthy of our caring, not even our beloved Unitarian Universalist tradition. Perfection makes everything so grim that there’s no energy left, no compassion, no love—but those are exactly the sorts of things that make you want to help something grow and evolve….
Perfection is the enemy of progress.
Perfection makes you lose the day.
I should add that, from both Brother Michael and Brother Elias, I heard a common refrain. Something to the effect of, “I’m just sharing my journey, I’m speaking out of the struggles of my life and faith, I’m not speaking authoritatively about Roman Catholic doctrine. So, remember this before you go report us to Rome for our heresies.” It was said somewhat jokingly … but I was told later that, in the past, they’d actually been ratted on by some ultra conservative Catholics who did not appreciate what I considered to be the monks’ sheer Unitarian Universalist freedom of conscience and spiritual exploration. This really happened.
What felt very UU to me in them was what could get them in some real trouble.
The Abbot of the monastery himself, Brother Francis, was also very aware of this. But he went ahead and told his unvarnished truth, when we had a chance to be with him. His topic was “God images”: how one’s image of God can very much reinforce perfectionism or, on the contrary, be medicine to heal it. He told us—the roomful of Catholics plus me—how, one day, he was talking to his therapist, who happened to be a woman, and he made the observation that pretty much all the Catholic mystics, when they spoke about God, referred to God as masculine and referred to themselves in relationship to God as feminine. God was the groom and they were the bride. But,” said Brother Francis to his female therapist, “this doesn’t work for me. It would make far more sense if God were feminine.” To which the therapist replied, “What do you mean IF?” and then she suddenly and abruptly got up and left the room. Whoa! Brother Francis took this as a reality check. It jarred him into admitting that his talk about God being feminine was just abstract, just empty words, because the God he knew deep in his heart and deep in his gut was implacably male. And not just God as any male. God as a bruising, demanding, perfectionistic male. God as a male judge who brings to mind images of courtrooms, public shaming, time served in jail, separation from loved ones, and on and on—the sort of judge who is just waiting for people to screw up, so He can punish them ruthlessly. This was the sort of God that he believed in most deeply, below and beneath all the aspirational yet empty talk about God being feminine.
He just had to come clean about all this.
After the session with his therapist, Brother Francis tried to bring more heart and soul into his explorations of feminine images of God. He didn’t get very far, he said, until the day he started addressing God as “my love.” “To my surprise,” he said, “it worked for me. And I got very different answers to my prayers. It felt like I was talking to a completely different person.”
The story is profound, and I experienced it as a call to go deeper in my work on my own perfectionism. It’s not something you can solve through mere words or ideas. We have already talked about how people—especially white middle class folks—are born into a culture that teaches you perfectionism. And now Brother Francis is reminding us that to be born into a historically Christian nation is to absorb an image of God that is also perfectionistic. Therefore the work to do in healing perfectionism must go very deep. It must take us deep inside, where fear of making a mistake burns like the fires of hell, and so to escape being thrown into hell, our survival strategy is to serve a God of perfection or, equally, the white middle-class ethic of perfection.
But what happens when we address the entire universe differently, and we say, “My love”? What happens when our sense of God really changes—not abstractly but deeply to that of a loving father or a loving mother or loving friend? Loving people hold us—flaws and all—in compassion. Loving people see our mistakes as opportunities to grow and learn from, not prisons from which a person can never escape.
We are called to become a people of love and not fear.
We are called to become a people of compassion and not judgmentalism.
Perfectionism must not cause us to lose the day. That’s what the monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit were saying to a roomful of Catholics plus me. “Tell me about Abraham,” said Brother Michael. “Abraham, one of the most important characters in the Bible and spiritual godfather of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Abraham, who walked with God. Know what he did? He lied! He lied to Pharaoh, said that his wife was not his wife but his sister, so Pharaoh wouldn’t have him killed. Even a hero like Abraham makes big mistakes.” “And what about Moses?” Brother Michael was really getting into it. “Moses, who was God’s right hand man, who literally saw God and lived. What did he do? He murdered a man. He was a murderer!” With almost perverse gusto, Brother Michael went through the entire list of Jewish and Christian saints, sages, and wise men. David, Solomon, Peter, Matthew, Paul, on and on, all to the effect of saying that mistakes don’t disqualify a person from holiness, or from being in a state of spiritual power and fulfillment. In fact, you want to allow for mistakes, because often that’s the only way for a person to truly unfold and become themselves. It took a mistake to get to the discovery of penicillin. It took a mistake to get to aspirin, to X-rays, to Teflon, to Velcro, to nylon, to cornflakes, and to chocolate-chip cookies. If it took a mistake to get to all these amazing things, why would anyone think that they could get to the amazing heart of who they are without any fumbles, any goof-ups, any mishaps, any struggles?
And then Brother Michael said, “You want to know what the spirituality of imperfection is? It’s courage. You try and you fall and you get back up. Then you fall again. Then you get back up again. Just be sure you always get back up again and keep going, keep walking, don’t ever stop.”
The spirituality of imperfection is ultimately about becoming our true selves so we can be strong for ourselves and strong for others. How we do this when it inevitably involves falling down. When, inevitably, we will disappoint others. When feelings of shame and fear are an inevitable part of the process. When, inevitably, we feel disqualified from the start because society says we just aren’t the right kind of person—not beautiful enough, not thin enough, not successful enough, not SOMETHING enough.
But we try anyhow.
Cheryl Strayed says, “Let it be what you can’t yet imagine and wouldn’t orchestrate even if you could.” Her column was about a wedding, but she’s not talking just about weddings. It’s about the mystery of who one is and the long journey of that mystery’s unfolding. All the twists, all the turns, all the surprises. The shimmering slice of destiny.
There at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, I sat in a classroom chair listening to monks who seemed to me to be more authentic and more whole than most people I meet in the street, and I thought about my own long journey from the Texas A&M Ballroom to where I was, divorced, having made mistakes, beginning a new chapter.
And all I had to do was keep walking.
Fall again, no doubt, but get back up again.
To believe I am loved by a Love greater than I can know, far greater than the God of perfectionism and punishment–far greater than the fear that society puts in us.
To learn how to feel that abiding, transcendent Love in my guts and in my heart.
To learn how to live from that center.
To keep showing up, and to save the day.
To be courageous.
And you too, in your own long journey.