The downside of living in a feel-good culture is that we rarely, if ever, feel good enough. Obsessed with living Our Best Life, turning 60 into the new 40, therapy-busting every neurosis, and OM-ing our way to eternal bliss, we forget the importance of imperfection, the value of our limitations, the power of our unfixable parts to remind us that we’re messy, mortal beings, not perfection-waiting-to- happen.
Instead of appreciating our warts, we’re encouraged to turn our very humanness into the enemy. If we only had Christie Brinkley’s thighs, Stephen Hawking’s brain, and the dharma life of the Dalai Lama, maybe we’d be good enough. But this, of course, is the opposite of wisdom. Wisdom comes from recognizing that particularity is the path of truth, and that crookedness along with eccentricity are vital parts of our sacred journey. “Improvement makes strait roads,” wrote William Blake, the mystic poet, “but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.” We sometimes forget this in spiritual circles, taught to focus, excessively, on roadside repair and the perfect view. I’m not suggesting that improvement, growth, and learning aren’t worthy pursuits. (They are.) But it’s just as vital to remember that partiality, jaggedness, and imperfection are actually closer to nature; and that, despite our best efforts, we will never embody the universal ideal. There are no straight lines in the natural world.
The near enemy of aspiration is perfectionism: your oppressor not your friend. This is what makes self-improvement such a slippery slope. We long for beauty, truth, and goodness; we yearn to grow, expand, get free. These appetites are integral to a meaningful life. “It is as necessary for man to live in beauty rather than ugliness as it is necessary for him to have food for an aching belly or rest for a weary body,” in Abraham Maslow’s words. But hubris is another story. This overbearing flaw forces us to deny, reject, and amputate anything in us that falls short of flawless. But what if we were to end this oppression? What if we were to celebrate our absolutely personal weirdness, knowing that our sloppy parts are also what give us flavor and kick. Imagine how original we could be. And how much happier, too.
“Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them,” wrote Buckminster Fuller. De-geniusing happens when we toe the line, shrink to fit, and abandon what is unique and off-center. In Roman times, genius was used to describe the “tutelary deity” with which each us born, the personal spirit or muse whose sole purpose is to guide us toward self-actualization. By following our genius rather than Madison Avenue, say, or the dictates of spiritual correctness, we arrive at an authentic life.
Imagine how dull it would be to be perfect. Not perfect in the Divine sense – which includes all kinds of imperfection – but perfect in a faceless, goose stepping way of scrubbing away all your rough spots and turning yourself into an object defined by alikeness rather than difference and free to make its own choices. Spiritual correctness is especially insidious. According to the SC way of thinking, enlightenment is a one-sided business, all peace, light, love, and angels. This leads us to cut ourselves in two: between the desire to be luminous and self-transcendent, and the need to be be messy, lusty, and coarse. I was on a panel a couple of weeks ago called “The Importance of the Dark in Spiritual Writing,” with fellow authors Clark Strand and Gail Straub. We talked about the dangers of shadow-denying and the pitfalls of pretending to be squeaky clean on a real, sometimes mucky, spiritual path. We regretted together the New Age obsession with light at the expense of the fecund darkness, where awakening gestates and the inner life takes root. With so much emphasis on transcendence, getting off the wheel, and perfecting ourselves, we often forget the value of the earthy, sensual, ensouled, and profane. In ages past, good and evil were mixed up with sacred and profane very differently than they are today, I said. The sacred could be good or evil, and the profane could be either as well. “Those were the good old days,” I said.
After the panel, I met with a student who’s suffering from writer’s block. After relating the self-hating story of having abandoned her book, she said, “Maybe I’m a perfectionist.”
My teasing made her laugh. “It runs through my whole life,” she continued. “I’m always trying to be flawless.” She paused to consider her café au lait. “I can’t write. I can’t be in an intimate relationship. I can’t forgive my own mistakes. I hate the way I look in the mirror.” This startled me coming from a beautiful woman. “All I see are the flaws. One flaw cancels out ten achievements. It’s sick. I’m stuck. I could give up tomorrow.” I felt badly for her without buying her story. “Sometimes I wonder why I should bother.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t. I mean, what’s the use? You’re smart, attractive, talented, loved. What are your chances?” I ask.
“OK,” she said. “But what should I do?
“Get back to work.”
The next day, she sent me a postcard. The photograph showed an Inuit hunter whose face had been torn in half by a bear. A deep gash ran from the crown of his head to the tip of his stubbly chin. He was blind in one eye and the other was nearly scarred shut. He’d been caught in a moment of uncontrolled mirth, a pipe hanging from his smiling mouth. He must have been happy to be alive. She’d written on the bottom, “What’s my problem?”
Nothing, I thought. Say hello to the bear.