A Perfect Christmas Quandary


A Perfect Christmas Quandary

Photo © Lisa Thornberg/iStockPhoto

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.

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11 Comments on “A Perfect Christmas Quandary”

  1. December 14, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

    This is so timely at Christmas. Thanks for the words of wisdom and thought. I have announced that I am not sharing ‘gifts’ this year. I am looking forward to the conviviality around the table and being with family and friends.

  2. December 14, 2011 at 5:38 pm #

    I love the distinction you have made here between a perfectionism that takes us away from ‘who we are’ demanding a superficial formulaic perfection, and the perfectionism that deeply affirms “who we are’ including imperfections and flaws that are miraculously woven together, part of goodness breaking out….thank you Susan!

  3. December 15, 2011 at 5:02 am #

    What a wonderful thing to read after stressing all day about picking up my aged mother at the airport, rushing to my sister’s Christmas concert tomorrow night (at an annual event I really can’t stand), worrying that my mother-in-law’s birthday is once again not going to get the due it deserves (why was she born one week before Christmas anyway?) all of this to be fit in around three compulsory Christmas events at work—to say nothing of actually getting the work itself done. Yes, I do need to slow down and stop letting my inner Scrooge bash away at things. I have to stop trying to make it all perfect, which almost inevitably makes things worse. How old do I have to get to learn this?

  4. Sandy
    December 15, 2011 at 6:50 pm #

    Lovely, thoughtful, and inspiring – thanks so much for this, Susan!

  5. Margaret
    December 15, 2011 at 7:24 pm #

    A timely reminder of the great difference between the delusional consumption and the deep abundance that is at the heart of Christmas. Thank you Susan.

  6. elevatoroperator
    December 15, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    Thanks for this lovely piece of wisdom! We need this at this season.

  7. December 18, 2011 at 3:16 pm #

    Although I am pretty aware of this I was still surprised when after a receiving a text from my youngest son that read “mum how do you feel about exchanging hand made gifts this Year”
    I felt my whole body relax and the tone of Christmas softened.

    I love your wisdom about perfectionism Susan. It’s so important to bring it out from it’s hiding place and name it which you have done.

    As far as Christmas goes I have a litle shop and gallery this year so I am actually wearing a retailers hat for the first time as well as navigating my personal relationship with Christmas. I love that I sell local hand made and gentle used things that make it a lot less stressful for people and are infused with love. I love the Mary and Jesus beeswax candles we have from the Bee lady on Westham island. It allows me to bring the Holy Mother into people’s homes such a joy. We also have a Mary Kali room where I am inviting people to come in and meditate or sit quietly with sacred music or share a cup of Mistletoe tea to gentle come home to themselves and the true meaning of this season of light and giving

  8. Audrey Wilson
    December 20, 2011 at 3:45 am #

    Striving for perfection is good if it really helps us to be a better person.However we must remember that we are not perfect ,and we probably never will be. We must remain a “real” human person. Christmas and the birth of Jesus was a simple,plain event, and yet we make Christmas a complicated busy time.We talked about this at senior bowling today. People from two or three different christian churches were involved in the conversation. Gifts,preparations ,and decorations add light, joy, and cheer to cold dreary winter days.Of course it is a great time of business for stores. What each person does and how we celebrate is really a personal choice. We don’t have to do what everyone else does. We CHOOSE to celebrate Christmas in our own way, and hopefully none of us will get tied up in a big bundle of being perfect or having a perfect day.

  9. December 20, 2011 at 7:18 pm #

    Lovely, Susan, thank you for posing such excellent questions and for reframing the notion of perfection… and how perfectly timely:) It’s such a loaded term that I tend to replace the striving/strife for perfection with a sense of completion instead.

    On the positive side of Christianity, the Cathar Perfects seemed to arrive at simplicity and presence. All the people of the Book, though, do share that sense of the absolute more than Hinduism or Buddhism.

  10. December 22, 2011 at 1:44 am #

    Thanks to all for these timely and insightful thoughts about the perfect versus perfectionism. Yes, the Cathars had a different since of “perfect” in simplicity and presence, Penn. Thanks for that thought. Maybe the Quakers too. It’s fascinating thinking about how the different religions approach what we call the absolute or the ultimate, or the whole big process. How does Buddhism approach perfectability? More, more! It’s okay to stumble, fall, make mistakes, and see how we can weave them into the whole rather than beating up on ourselves. Susan

  11. December 28, 2011 at 11:38 pm #

    Having to be “perfect” can be even more of an obsession in the New Year. I resolve to release and be!

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