“One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, ‘It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do – you can either type or kill yourself.’ We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time.”-Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
One of the things that I am giving up for Lent is the need to refine things obsessively. For a long while, I used to think that perfection was a standard for which to strive. Now, I wonder whether it serves as one of my greatest obstacles to being authentic and real with those who are my neighbors.
I remember when my wife and I were still dating. For a good while during of our three-year, long-distance relationship, we used to write one another letters and send them to one another via snail mail. I loved this. I’d go, find some special stationary, pull out my favorite pen, and begin writing.
But then, I’d make a mistake. And so, I’d crumple up the paper and start again.
But then, I’d make another mistake. And so, I’d crumple up the paper and start again.
Again. Again. Again.
Soon, it would be late into the evening, and a pile of crumpled up, special stationary had gradually, like the way moss creeps up a tree’s trunk, surrounded and embraced my wastebasket. And I sat, desk before me a mess, with no letter to show, and only a few pieces remaining from the ream left.
My wife commented on the fact that my letters seemed polished and flawless. She let me stew on that for a minute, allowing me to think that was a compliment before adding, “It doesn’t feel like you sometimes. I don’t mind mistakes if it’s you I’m getting.”
Here I was trying to make something perfect, but what happened was that I had allowed this thing meant to be a means of connection to become a barrier to it, instead.
And yet, for a while, the ghost of misunderstanding the words of Jesus haunted me, urging me to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Perfection is not a state like the abstract forms of platonic thought, but the quality of maturity that a tree holds upon growing into the fullness of what it was meant to be. Further reading has shown me that platonic perfectionism seems to be a symptom of white supremacy culture in which many of us – all of us, I’d wager – swim.
Dr. Tema Okun, on White Supremacy Culture, notes that this characteristic is among fourteen others, those being sense of urgency, defensiveness, valuing quality over quantity, worshiping the written word, believing in only one right way, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, believing I’m the only one, believing progress means bigger and more, believing in objectivity, and claiming a right to comfort. The perfectionism that Okun describes is more of the kind that I am familiar with, “such as pointing out how a person or their work is inadequate.”
If that’s the perfectionism of white supremacy culture, it appears that it’s leaked into more than just one area of my life. And, if my conversations with my former student has any bearing on me, the regular practices and habits we have build into larger liturgies that translate to all of life.
Perhaps, one of the things I need to give up for Lent is perfection, a need to strive for an unattainable standard. To allow myself and my neighbors grace to offer what we can to whatever we’re trying to address. To unlearn harmful processes over and over.
Again and again and again.
But this time, not repeating a practice as a barrier, but as one attempts, however imperfectly, to embrace those they find around them in acts of care.
May I be quick to learn, slow to speak, and even slower to anger in this.