by Susan McCaslin
Some Reflections on Chapter 1 of my new book, Arousing the Spirit (Wood Lake Publishing).
Why would a book exploring the mystical side of Christianity begin with a chapter on perfectionism?
Well, many of the great mystics talk about the “ladder” or “scale of perfection” as a metaphor for ascending stages in the spiritual life. If the encompassing and indwelling Presence that guides the sun and the stars isn’t about maturation to perfection, then what is it about?
My essay in Arousing distinguishes between two uses of the term “perfect.”
First, there’s the sense of perfection as a flow from within that moves all things through stages of evolution toward greater elegance, beauty, empathy, and compassion. I think that just by being alive we participate in that kind of perfection, a movement toward ripening and fulfillment. We are part of what we call God, so in one way we are already perfect, but need to rest in that awareness more often and realize that perfection weaves in our flaws and works with the so called “imperfect.”
The problematic form of perfection is what has driven the compulsion for progress in the west, the need to always better ourselves, mostly through material means.
When it comes down to our daily lives, it’s that voice that tells us we are never measuring up, never good enough.
It’s what drives young women (and increasingly boys) to become anorexic. It’s what makes me, after giving a poetry reading, dwell on the one comment I interpreted as critical rather than all the positive ones. Why do many of us tend to focus on lack, insufficiency, and fear, rather than the joy of sheer being?
Today, right in the middle of the pre-Christmas season, the pertinence of challenging this negative kind of perfectionism struck me again.
I glanced in my local newspaper at an article full of advice from “design divas” on how to “survive Christmas.” Ostensibly, it was about how Debbie Travis and other home design icons will help us “ease the stress of Christmas.” In essence, the article was prescriptive. There was a long list of do’s and don’ts: get rid of those old shabby tree ornaments, buy the perfect designer tree, use white plates, and create an elegant centrepiece with sparkly reindeer.
I was reminded of how a friend of mine recently expressed relief at the family’s decision to skip the gift exchange this year because she will be freed from the obsession to find the “perfect gift” for each family member. Just reading the article made me anxious about hosting the family do this year and wishing we could just forget Christmas. I felt my inner Scrooge rising.
So I’d like to leave you with a few questions about this sort of negative perfectionism.
Is Christianity particularly culpable for stressing the aspiration for perfection throughout the centuries? Think of the extreme ascetics, flagellants in hair shirts, the holy anorexics of history. Jesus himself doesn’t seem to me like much of an ascetic in that sense, but someone who enjoyed the fullness of being, saying that what God wants for us is “life more abundant.”
Or does the “never good enough” feeling have other roots? Have other world religions (Judaism, Islam, Buddhism) equally encouraged this crippling kind of perfectionism?
Or is there just something in humans that makes them focus on lack rather than inner abundance? What turns the season of birth of a new self into the season of trying so hard to make everything “perfect”?
Susan McCaslin is a prize-winning poet and author of eleven volumes of poetry. Susan is Faculty Emeritus of Douglas College where she taught English and Creative Writing for twenty-three years. She lives in Fort Langley, British Columbia. Visit her website at www.susanmccaslin.ca.