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Culture of Perfection
An excerpt from “Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary people”
"Imperfection clings to a person, and if they wait till they are brushed off entirely, they would spin forever on their axis, advancing nowhere." ~Thomas Carlyle
I’m pretty sure Buddha never had to deal with a raisin up his kid’s nose. But I have. Raisins up the nose and other real-life moments are routine around here in my messy, chaotic, interesting life. A life that many days feels more like a ready-made script for a television sitcom than a spiritual pursuit. But the messes and mistakes, imperfections and blunders have provided the basis for probably my broadest spiritual practice yet, the practice of imperfection, the practice of living an authentic life. It began in the backseat of a Volvo.
We were just fifteen minutes into an hour-long trip and my daughter was already fussing in the back.
“My nose hurts,” she said. “I want out. I wanna be done.”
“Enough,” I said. “We’ll get there when we get there.” I spoke quickly so that I could get back to telling my husband how to drive, when to slow down, where to turn.
“I got it,” he said. “If I need help driving I’ll let you know.”
“My nose is stuffy,” said the voice from the backseat.
“But you DO need help,” I said.
“I want out,” my daughter said.
“Me, too,” said my husband.
This was so not the picture I had imagined when I first thought about marriage and kids and family vacations and happily-ever-after. Of course I knew there would be challenges, but this was just plain irritating and inconvenient and crazy-making. Clearly my path to perfection as the ideal wife and mother was veering wildly toward the cliff’s edge.
I actually fell over that cliff when the mist from my daughter’s sneeze hit me in the back of the neck and the raisin that had, apparently, been jammed up her nose, rocketed past my ear, sticking to the windshield in front of me.
“That,” my husband said, “was so amazing.”
“Did you see my raisin go, Mommy? My nose feels better now.”
“Wow,” said my husband, smiling at her in the rearview mirror.
Yes. Wow, I thought. My daughter had a raisin lodged in her nose. There goes my nomination for the “Mom of the Year Award” — again.
The culture of perfection
We live in a culture where things like “Mom of the Year Awards” and other signs of perfection are revered and coveted. We celebrate success, reward beauty, and praise people who follow the rules and don’t make trouble. We do not generally celebrate mothers whose kids stuff raisins up their noses. We are not hot on people who are unsuccessful, overweight, un-attractive, or destitute. What we like are those people whom have it together, appear to have the perfect marriage and the beautiful house, the great job, and the clean kids.
We are a culture of perfection seekers. Collectively — yes, this means you and me — we celebrate youth, money, beauty, thinness, and ambition. We like shiny things, cleanliness, good manners, winners, and we like to be right, especially with our husbands.
It’s an evolution that began centuries ago when the early colonists to New England brought their Calvinist and Protestant beliefs about predestination and work to the New World. Historically, hard work was considered a spiritual pursuit. These early settlers believed that hard work was the will of God, and their duty was to serve God through their labors. Any wealth accumulated through this work was a sign of God’s favor and indicated that you were one of the chosen ones, selected by God for salvation and eternal life.
With time, though, the religious doctrines began to fall away, leaving a culture deeply embedded by capitalism and the austere Protestant work ethic, but one increasingly focused on perfection and personal gain as a sign of societal status rather than God’s favor. The right careers, marriages, bodies, cars, and schools became prestigious, a way of indicating intelligence, worth, power.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s this modern push for all things perfect shifted into overdrive when Dallas and Dynasty replaced more family-oriented programming like Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons as the most popular shows on television. There was this global sense, says Laurie Essig, Ph.D., author and assistant professor of sociology at Middlebury College, that perfect would provide everything we wanted and needed.
It’s a perception that is hard to shake no matter how analytical or self-aware you are thanks to a market-driven system that is constantly telling us through commercials, magazines and media that we must do certain things just to fit in.
“We are made to feel that we need to buy more stuff and do more stuff not even to be perfect but just to be presentable,” Essig says. “It’s doubtful many of us will ever be able to escape all aspects of this culture.”
The move toward imperfection
Even as we rail against the T.V. programs, billboards, and advertisements that objectify people and Photoshop their real-world characteristics like wrinkles and blemishes and other so-called flaws away, it’s hard not to buy into this practice of perfectionism just a little bit. I think of it every morning when the light catches the gray in my hair. It’s part of the natural aging process, I know, but it’s causing me to look older and that feels harder to take every time I see a commercial for hair color featuring gorgeous, youthful women. I could dye my hair and get a teeny bit closer to the made-for-T.V.-ideal, but going with Rocket Red hair color is not going to smooth the wrinkles or alter the aging process.
What if, though, instead of coloring my hair, I acknowledged my age and gave thanks that I’ve been able to live this long? What if I saw the strands of gray as a sign of privilege rather than a flaw? Then the so-called imperfections of getting older would make me feel better and they could actually become pathways to spiritual development.
I’m not suggesting that we give up on self-improvement altogether. There’s nothing wrong with a little hair dye or trying a technique to help you live well. Most of us do want to look better and feel better in our skin. We want to be better people. Personal development is valid and worthwhile when it comes from a place of curiosity and passion, when it comes from a desire to grow and to create meaning-filled lives. But too often we want to sweep away our flaws in order to measure up to some Hollywood ideal.
We invest time and put our attention on fixing, changing, avoiding, denying and hiding our imperfections to match some contrived cultural expectation, rather than living from what’s right and true for us. Let’s do it differently. It’s time to shift our focus and energy from what’s wrong with us to what is right within us.
In-the-moment practice: You can work on this
Take five minutes, wherever you are, and think about all the mistakes and imperfections that have actually yielded a happy or fortuitous result. Smile then, and say this out loud:
I will live this life just how it is. I will love it and have fun with it and learn from it. I am authentic and I can use all of this stuff: the messiness and confusion and ugliness and busyness and pain and joy and peace and beauty and humor and uncertainty to grow and live my best life. I will use all that I am — the greatness and the imperfections—to step into my full potential. To live my purpose. To contribute to others. To be the difference in the world. Who I am is enough.
Polly Campbell is a writer and speaker specializing in personal development and spirituality. Her work appears regularly in national publications, and she is a blogger with Psychology Today and a teacher for Daily Om and Imperfect Spirituality. For more than two decades, Polly has studied and applied the techniques she writes and speaks about to her own life.