Perfectionism’s last stand

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In all my years as a dedicated perfectionist, I never once stopped to ask myself — what is perfection? What has to happen for me to be satisfied? Even if I had asked these questions, perfection is a wily shapeshifter, a trickster goading me to try to control events and outcomes. It tells me I can live in a world entirely of my own design, safe and predictable. Everything can turn out the way I want it to.

Perfectionism keeps the focus on exterior appearances, at the expense of inner literacy and spiritual connection. It dictates that only the material, measurable world is real, and tries to be both means and ends. Borrowing a bit of wisdom about peace: There is no way to work for perfection. Perfection is the way.

When you shine a harsh light to burn away the shadows, though, perfection goes flat. It’s a Disney main street, instead of a real town. A lazy river ride at a water park, not a wild, spring-swollen stream. It’s boring, unreal, a false master, and a dangerous distraction from true beauty.

The Japanese understood this. Wabi sabi is their highest expression of beauty. Artful imperfection, a deep bow to the rustic, rough, misshapen, and mottled. Human perfection is a lesser goal, a least goal, trivial in the face of Nature’s brilliant flaws, which are, paradoxically, perfect.

Speaking of flaws, activists have much to mourn these days. Whether it’s the Ferguson case, rape on college campuses, extinction, climate change, Keystone XL, fracking. The list seems endless and the forces pushing the status quo are everywhere.

And if that isn’t enough, as citizens of this culture, activists are at risk of perfectionism. It’s nearly impossible not to notice all these conditions and injustices that seem to multiply, despite our years and decades of dedicated work and sacrifice. All those years, giving of myself, of my life, and for what? So those in power can continue their rampage against women, the planet, people of color, future generations, and/or fill-in-the-blank?

“Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.”
~ Bruce Cockburn, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”

At times like this, it feels impossible — irresponsible — to wait till dawn. Singing to the sunrise may be a beautiful expression of gratitude and tribute for the sun’s gifts of life and warmth, but it’s not the cause. A little patience and humility go a long way.

For years, I was obsessed with knowing the most effective way to turn things around. Practicing and teaching green architecture worked for a while, till perfectionism caused me to question whether I could do more in some other arena. To be honest, I’m still looking for that sweet spot. It’s how I found my way here, poking holes in stories of domination and exception. Encouraging the emergence of new stories.

In the face of the unbridled pain of people in Ferguson, and right here in Baltimore, it’s easy to slip into telling myself that whatever I’m doing is not enough. There must be a better, more effective way.

It’s time to recognize that is perfectionism’s last stand. It will always tell me I’m not enough, there’s a better angle, a sweeter sweet spot. It’s whispering, it’s shouting: look, look over there. No, over there. There are kittens that need adopting. Black boys walking the streets in fear. Migrating ducks coated in tar. Lacrosse stars raping innocent college women. Do something. Do more. Do it better.

I’m straining my ears trying to hear the message beneath all this noise. It’s my own suffering heart, my own wounds, projected out there. A 35mm trick of light and mirrors, big as the world. These phrases are tossed about so much they seem too simple, like wishful thinking: Turn to the light. Be the change. Live the future you wish to see. Let go of the outcome. One breath, one step at a time. Maybe there is something to them, though.

“Act always as if the future of the universe depended on what you did, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes any difference.” – Buddha

The great Buddhist activist, Joanna Macy, has a framework that saved me. Since we are all interconnected, every action we take contributes to the whole. I look at this diagram to remind myself that it doesn’t matter what I do, as long as it comes from my heart. The source of my motivation and ideas is what I honor, not the results of my actions. And I know all of your hearts are out there carrying your threads into the world, and together we are weaving a beautiful, imperfect tapestry for this and future generations.

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