Author Brene Brown says, “Perfectionism is a self- destructive belief system that says, ‘If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.’” This is self-destructive. On the other hand, learning to be practically imperfect is a joyful practice that opens us to be truly grounded in relationship.
Reading One, by Anne Lamott
The good news about the word perfect as used in the New Testament is that it is not a scary word so much as a scary translation. The word that has been translated as perfect does not mean to set forth an impossible goal or the perfectionism that would have me strive for it at any cost. It is taken from a Latin word meaning complete, entire, and full-grown. To those who originally heard it, the word would convey mature rather than what we mean today by perfect. To be perfect in the sense that Jesus means it is to make room for growth, for the changes that bring us to maturity, to ripeness. To mature is to lose adolescent self-consciousness, so as to be able to make a gift of oneself, as a parent, teacher, friend, spouse…Perfection in a Christian sense means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others. Whatever we have, no matter how little it seems, is something that can be shared with those who are poorer. This sort of perfection demands that we become fully ourselves, as God would have us: mature, ripe, full, ready for what befalls us, for whatever is to come.
Reading Two: “The Story of the Two Brothers
Time before time when the world was young, two brothers shared a field and a mill. Each night they divided evenly the grain they had ground together during the day. Now as it happened, one of the brothers lived alone; the other had a wife and a large family. One day, the single brother thought to himself: “It isn’t really fair that we divide the grain evenly. I have only myself to care for, but my brother has children to feed. So each night he secretly took some of his grain to his brother’s granary to see that he was never without.
But the married brother said to himself one day, “it isn’t really fair that we divide the grain evenly, because I have children to provide for me in my old age, but my brother has no one. What will he do when he is old?” So every night he secretly took some of his grain to this brother granary. As a result both of them always found their supply of grain mysteriously replenished each morning.
Then one night the brother met each other halfway between their two houses, suddenly realized what had been happening and embraced each other in love. The story is that God witnessed their meeting and proclaimed, “This holy place, – place of love-and here it is that my temple shall be built. As so it was. The holy place is the place human beings discover each other in love.
The spirituality of imperfection is such a place.
I am so happy to see you all, it has been several weeks since I’ve been in the pulpit, its good to be back, good to be preaching on imperfection, something I like to role model often. Good to be talking about this topic because sometimes I forget that the most important things I have learned in my decade of Unitarian Universalist ministry comes down to what I predicted I needed to learn six weeks into the ministry of my first congregation – that our mistakes are not the most important part of us, that kindness and compassion matter more than anything. So basically everything I have learned comes down to love because love covers the vast array of mistakes, missteps, and missed opportunities, love allows for healing, for transformation, love allows for grace to rush in and carry us through -which is the stuff of which our work is made.
A reminder of this lesson of love came to me metaphorically in the shape of an apple, a brown bag of apples actually left on my desk at my last church. No note. These apples were different, odd shaped, with indents, and browns spots and soft parts. It had been so long since I had seen an apple without a quality approved sticker, polished and perfect that I wondered if these were even edible. I wondered, at first a little offended, why would someone give them to me?
The next morning I learned they were from a tree in the yard of Martha, an elderly woman in the congregation who had just lost her husband Arne. A tree I had stood under the day I said goodbye to him. I remember how during that visit Martha’s face lit up as she pointed to the ripening apples. I looked at the apples again on my desk, and they suddenly looked different, not more round or less blemished but more nourishing. Arne, was Norwegian, and as a teenager he and his brother and father were active in the resistance movement against the Nazis. As an adult he was passionate about democracy and active in politics. A passion he shared with Martha who was still a selectwoman at the age of 90. Looking at the apples again, I knew they were truly perfect in the way the Gospel was written, made full and ripe by the lives and love of Arne and Martha. Apples that I had dismissed and the metaphor was not lost on me, that this is how perfection works in people, how we try to look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly to avoid judgment. And how when we fail, we perceive ourselves and others as less worthy.
Our faith may bear a particular responsibility for this. In the mid 19th century Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke proclaimed the five points of the Unitarian faith. The last two were Salvation by Character and The Progress of Mankind, onward and upward forever. In other words our very salvation depends upon the constant improvement of our character and it is not only our own salvation that is at stake, our individual progress contributes to the progress of all humankind or lack thereof. Just a little pressure. Taken in historical context these points were of course radical and empowering – it matters what we do; we have the capacity to impact our own eternal destiny. But the message of onward and upward forever, one my father held dear, is dangerous, especially for those of us who are white, because it can get us collectively thinking that we are called to perfection. Or even worse, that we we are already basically perfect, already basically blessed, no changes necessary. Which means when our supposed ontological “goodness” is challenged by those on the margins of societal or congregation power, moments we come face to face with our very real limitations, some of us can go deep into the dark woods of shame.
I am always surprised at how quickly and frequently this happens. I was talking to a colleague yesterday who said she just emerged from ten days of shame after she misgenered a congregant twice by mistake, causing a rift in their relationship. Shame, or fear of it, lurks in conversations about race too. We believe that as religious liberals we are suppose to have this anti-oppression stuff down right? We need to hold our limitations with compassion and that helps me to remember the more humble claim of our long ago puritan forebearers, -that human beings have the power to both do good and to do better. You are enough, I am enough, I could do better, and we can do a little better together. We are in truth saved from perfection, saved from shame, free from the need to prove ourselves and instead called into mutuality. Sociologist Brene Brown tells this story about how she used her shame differently in three different conversations to finally discover mutuality. She begins,
A couple of years ago, Steven and I went to a dinner party at an acquaintance’s house. These were new, “fancy friends” and I was anxious to make a good impression. When we got there, they offered us an appetizer-a big silver bowl of beans. When I first saw them I thought they were beans that needed to be shucked for dinner, so when they offered them to us an appetizer, I’m sure I looked shocked. I said, “Really, what is it?” I’ll never forget the look on their faces. They were absolutely floored. “What do you mean “what is it?” I immediately felt the warm wave of shame. I apologetically asked, “Are they beans?” The host replied, “Of course. It’s edamame. Don’t tell me you’ve never had edamame. Don’t you eat sushi? Then as if it were both unbelievable and fascinating, she started turning to other dinner guests and announcing, “They have never had edamame-can you believe it?” I desperately wanted to turn right around and go home. I was filled with shame.”
She goes on: “A couple of weeks later, I was in my office working and eating some beans, (I ended up really loving edamame). A student knocked on the door and asked if she could come in to talk to me about a paper. I’m not sure why this student pushed my buttons, but she did. It was probably because she reminded me of myself when I was in my late twenties-smart, but at times painfully insecure and trying harder than necessary. She looked at my bag of beans and said what are those?” In that split second, I felt the dinner party shame all over again. In what must have been an attempt to “shift shame” by putting some of my shame on to her, I said “Edamame, of course. Haven’t you had them?” She looked embarrassed, “No I don’t think so. Are they good?” And then in a very Joan Crawford way, I said, ” I can’t believe you haven’t tried them. They’re super food. They are fab-u-lous.” Brene goes on to say, “by the time the student left my office, I was numb. I couldn’t believe it. Why had I done that? I
have no stake in soybeans. Then it hit me, not knowing about Japanese food is a culture and class issue, and for me class was a trigger of shame.”
A few months later, Brene’s good friend from her working class childhood home came for a visit, and Brene chose this time to demystify knowledge and heal her shame. She said “hey, I am going to make some edamame, have you tried it?” When her friend said “no, what is it?” Brene smiled, “I think it is Japanese for soy bean, you boil them and sprinkle with salt, they are really good, I just had them for the first time a few weeks ago.” (end of story)
Can you hear how Brene used her shame to move from a will to power over to a will of mutuality? How helpful it was to make a connection between her personal experience and the larger social system of classism? And how her connection with a friend gave her the chance to claim her authentic worth, to say out loud “this is me.”? You can do this too. I remember one woman who knew her trigger was her body image. She did some research, discovered that 81 percent of ten year olds have already dieted once because they feel they are unattractive, and 80 percent of woman over eighteen years of age look in the mirror are unhappy with what they see. She got angry and decided to support organizations working for healthy body imaging for women and girls. She let go of her ideal identities and learned to say to family and friends, “this is me.”
You can do this too, figure our your shame trigger, do the research to discover how your trigger is connected to cultural patterns , make connection with other people to demystify your shame and live into your fullness. And I realized in talking to my colleague, church is the place where we talk about the very things that shame us, the things that otherwise would shut down our lives. Here in our small groups, in worship, in our classes and within our informal connections, we talk our sexuality, gender, death, money, body image, abuse, drugs, conflicts, parenting, and infidelity. And in these conversations, we learn to love every flawed thing about ourselves, learn to love our humanness, and see ourselves whole. Do you know this to be true?
I love this story about how Jason Comley, an IT guy living in Ontario Canada lived into his wholeness. Jason remembers:
“That Friday evening I was in my one-bedroom apartment trying to be busy,” Comely says. “But really, I knew that I was avoiding things.”
See, nine months earlier, Jason’s wife had left him.
“She … found someone that was taller than I was — had more money than I had. … So, yeah.”
And since then, Jason had really withdrawn from life. He didn’t go out, and he avoided talking to people, especially women.
But that Friday, he realized that this approach was taking a toll.
“I had nowhere to go, and no one to hang out with,” Comely says. “And so I just broke down and started crying.” He realized that he was afraid. “I asked myself, afraid of what?”
“I thought, I’m afraid of rejection.”
Which got him thinking about the Spetsnaz, an elite Russian military unit with a really intense training regime.
“You know, I heard of one situation where they were, like, locked in a room, a windowless room, with a very angry dog, and they’d only be armed with a spade, and only one person is going to get out — the dog or the Spetsnaz.”
And that gave him an idea. Maybe he could somehow use the rigorous approach of the Spetsnaz against his fear. So he looked at himself, and IT guy, living in a one- bedroom apartment in Cambridge, Ontario, and asked what is the modern equivalent of being trapped in a windowless room with a rabid dog and nothing to protect you but a single handheld spade?
“I had to get rejected at least once every single day by someone.”
He started in the parking lot of his local grocery store. Went up to a total stranger and asked for a ride across town.
“And he looked at me, like, and just said, ‘I’m not going that way, buddy.’ And I was like, ‘Thank you!’
“It was like, ‘Got it! I got my rejection. ”
Jason had totally inverted the rules of life. He took rejection and made it something he wanted — so he would feel good when he got it. ” Jason said, “It was sort of like walking on my hands or living underwater or something. It was just a different reality. The rules of life had changed.” People were actually more receptive to him, and he was more receptive to people, too. He says, “I was able to approach people, because what are you gonna do, reject me? Great!” As Jason lived into his wholeness he offered up a gift, designing a card game that has helped thousands of people to face their fear of rejection, and live full and more connected lives. If you are interested, Google “rejection therapy.”
This is the paradox of being practically imperfect. You discover your gift when you find the courage to embrace your limitation, what you thought was a flaw and stay in that embrace until it changes you and those around you, and you will become like the two brothers in our reading, embracing each other on the way to give each other the grain. That’s what we do here, we nourish your ripening, your growing, striving yet never reaching completion, celebrating together being imperfectly and magnificently human. This is no small thing. We live in a nation suffering an epidemic of loneliness, where half the people asked said they sometimes or always feel alone and left out, a loneliness no doubt driven by shame or the fear of it. Luckily lonely hearts don’t have to do it alone, like Jason did. Here we make tangible the love that is holding us all, with our open hearted courageous presence. A presence we practice with intention. I hope you join me on April 14th for a workshop that will help us deepen this open- hearted presence, integrating Buddhist practice of mindfulness with compassionate communication. For it is kindness that matters to most. Kindness is the superpower by which we discover the love that help us get to where we want to go. Love for healing, for transformation, love for grace to rush in and carry us through which is the stuff of which our work is made. Love for what makes us ripe for the giving, love for what makes us human.