The perfection of wisdom, and the end of true philosophy is to proportion our wants to our possessions, our ambitions to our capacities; we will then be a happy and a virtuous people. …. Mark Twain
Making resolutions for the new year is a difficult challenge, given that we are surrounded by advertising and social pressures that urge us to become perfect by acquiring an ever-increasing variety of perfect and perfecting products.
In the past I have made resolutions that were totally unrealistic. I see now that the whole agenda was doomed from the start. The goals, while not inappropriate in themselves, were expressed in terms of either/or, all or nothing. I had fallen into the perfectionist trap. Part of it may come from growing up with parents whose ambitions were shaped by the Great Depression. I grew up believing that it was always possible to be, to do, to have, to perform … well if not perfectly, at least better…. and that better can become best, and that the best would, by definition, be perfect.
The source of this thinking lies in the economy, and in the philosophical and religious traditions that shape our culture. Christian teachings uphold impossibly perfectionist standards and emphasize moral and spiritual perfection as conditions for salvation, an idea only partially mitigated by teachings about God’s unconditional love and the redemptive sacrifice of the crucifixion. This has been reinforced by secular thinking. For centuries, the western world has embraced the idea of progress, restlessly rejecting both past and present in the hope of attaining a more perfect future… in the economy this meant the search for new products and new markets, planned obsolescence, an ever-increasing market share, improving productivity and sales, and a richer bottom line! This search for economic progress in support of a perfect lifestyle produced an incredibly sophisticated and luxurious standard of living, but the costs have been high. The science of genetics produced improved livestock and increased crop yields but there has been a loss of biodiversity. Techniques of reconstructive surgery, developed to help the victims of war, are now applied cosmetically, while bulimia and anorexia kill those obsessed with achieving a perfect body. Fitness addicts and elite athletes dedicate their lives to achieving impossible goals of physical and performance perfection. The desire to escape from problems encourages drug and alcohol abuse. Children are rushed into premature adolescence and adult activities. Relationships are destroyed by unrealistic expectations. And we are rapidly destroying the planet.
We need to stop this insanity and we can begin by rejecting the idea that perfectionism is a virtue. Perfectionist standards stifle creativity, and lead to frustration when we cannot allow good-enough performance to be fulfilling. Unrealistic performance expectations and critical judgments of others hinder satisfying relationships. The pursuit of perfection has too many negative consequences… it creates too much pain and suffering.
This year I will reject all pressure to unrealistic standards of perfection and move towards attainable… and sustainable… standards of excellence.
And I will try to remember Virginia Satir’s good advice in my New Year’s Eve blog.
There was no time for blogging last week. Thanks to those of you who continued to visit!