You Are Enough
Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
November 12, 2017
First Reading “The Blessings of Imperfection”, G. Peter Fleck
In his book The Medusa and the Snail, the biologist Lewis Thomas observes that we humans “are built to make mistakes, coded for error,” that is, for being imperfect. “We learn, as we say, by trial and error … Why not ‘trial and rightness’ or ‘trial and triumph?’”; And he concludes: “The old phrase puts it that way because that is, in real life, the way it is done.” In other words: progress requires error. What persuasive reasoning: our response to our imperfection, he seems to say, is the very thing that can make us more perfect. …
This principle does not apply to humans only. It permeates creation. It is the very stuff of which evolution is made. Take the amphibians. The first one that crawled out of the water onto the land may not have done so because its feet were so strong, but because its gills were so weak. The imperfection of its gills made that first amphibian into an animal of a higher order. But one can imagine its parents’ distress at having a child that was so conspicuously unable to live a normal aquatic life, a child with which there was obviously something wrong, and one can imagine how it was jeered at by its peers. Nor did that first amphibian have any idea of what was happening to it. It had no idea that its “wrongness” had led it into a “betterness.”
Second Reading Perfection, Perfection by Kilian McDonnell
“It’s perfect” “it’s perfect!” I love those words. I like to hear them, it feels good to say them. It touches some deep place of satisfaction in me. You’ve probably even heard me say it as I appreciate some thing or other here. I don’t even do it consciously. Maybe you say it yourself.
But seeking perfection, consciously or not, particularly when it comes to ourselves, is a double-edged sword.
Last week we were talking about never having enough, feeling like we need more or want to spend more – money, time, things – more and better – that’s what we’re used to.
This week is about the feeling of not being enough – or rather – what it might feel like to know we are enough, just as we are. No perfecting required.
This, being enough…. It’s an interesting question for me. My protestant heritage runs deep in my being – even in spite of the fact that my family was never actively religious, there is something in that value system that strikes a deep chord in me. Somewhere, somehow, I long to have everything neatly lined up in rows.
My emails, my books, my friends.
Okay not my friends exactly.
But there is some part of me that wants things together, wants them in line, the details taken care of, everything in its place.
I kinda know this is a losing battle – it’s just not possible to organize everything & keep it that way… – and when I’m really honest, it’s a losing battle in more ways than one – I think there may be ways that I lose, too.
Years ago I read this little story from spiritual teacher, Ram Dass and, like a pebble in my shoe, it’s stuck in my mind, ever since.
Here’s what he wrote: God and Satan were walking down the street one day, and the Lord bent down and picked something up. He gazed at it glowing radiantly in His hand. Satan, curious, asked, “What’s that?’’ “This,” answered the Lord, “is Truth.” “Here,” replied Satan as he reached for it, “let me have that — I’ll organize it for you.”
When I first read that I thought. What? Organizing is the work of the devil? What??? You’ve got to be kidding me. Do you know how hard I’ve worked to get organized?? I’m sure it’s a spiritual strength, Don Miguel Ruiz of the Four Agreements, talks about being impeccable. The buddhists talk about mindfulness, the Christians talk about how cleanliness is next to Godliness (and I’m sure they mean tidyness too)…
So you can see how that’s a puzzling parable. If tidyness is next to godliness, being organized has got to be good.
I think it’s particularly stuck with me because I have worked so hard to get organized. And then have to wonder – was it for good?
I’ve talked before here about how when I was younger I was not the most fastideous of the bunch. For years in my 20’s and early 30’s I had a room in my apartment affectionately labelled the junk room – and it wasn’t small and it really was full of stuff I didn’t particularly want or need. Just ask my niece about it. She still claims that some of her impressively disorderly teenage habits were born of witnessing that particular room at the tender age of 3 and 4 and 5. And the fact is, that room was an improvement over how things had been before. At least there the mess was in 1 place. I’ll just let it go at that.
I was never much of a planner either. My mom would laugh if she heard me say that because the truth is that I was the antithesis of a planner. I was the anti-planner. If something could be postponed, I would postpone it. If a task could be procrastinated, you could count on me to do just that.
But somehow, in this last decade, maybe the last 15 years, I’ve changed. Bit by bit I realized that an uncluttered desk really is my preference. I noticed I feel better when my papers and files and in order. I like the feeling of knowing what’s coming up in the next weeks or months and knowing I have prepared for it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming to be a black belt planner, I’m no organizational aficionado – I still forget things sometimes, I still miscalculate how much time things will take, and I am far from perfect.
But I am vulnerable, I have discovered, to perfectionism. To the endless allure of the ideal.
I remember, when I was a kid, I’d see my dad’s books lying around with titles like “In Search of Excellence” and “From Good to Great.” – and something about those titles, and their promise of ever increasing mastery, prowess and potential, they stuck with me. Not that I did anything about that at the time, but, like a seed, ideas were planted.
And I remember it in my late teens early twenties, this motto of work hard, play hard. Give your work and your play, everything you’ve got. It was a new idea at the time, I didn’t do much with that then either but, looking back, it was the beginning of what to me has seemed like a growing trend around me, and then in me.
It’s this idea that you can be better, stronger, and smarter, and just generally more perfect, than you’ve ever been before. And so can your kids. And we have an ever expanding market for self-help books, we have life coaches, we have growth potential movements, we have a lot of ways to help you get there. Wherever “there” is.
As it happens, though, all this didn’t start with the author of those books on my dad’s coffee table.
This whole inclination toward human perfection, it’s old.
“Perfection,” Jan Nielson writes, “is a theme that runs throughout the Jewish and Christian traditions. Some form of the word “perfect” appears nearly 130 times in the collection of Hebrew and Christian scriptures we call the Bible.”
And a part, in the evolution of that theme, has been played by our very own Unitarian forebearers.
In fact you could say it was one of the defining elements of early American Unitarianism, this idea that we can change and improve ourselves. In the Puritan tradition out of which we came they didn’t believe that – they believed that only God could save a person, and that was predestined. All were broken – can’t even tell the difference between right and wrong. Nothing you could do to fix yourself, is what they believed.
But in the beginning of the 1800’s, a minister named William Ellery Channing began preaching a different story. He, and others like him, said: no no – we know the difference between right and wrong. We can learn and grow and do better. We can be better. Salvation by character, they called it. “Onward and upward forever” was, you could say, a motto.
And a decade after that, another early Unitarian published a book called On the Formation of Christian Character – the original self-help book, as my colleague Tom Belote calls it. Another 10 years later a Unitarian named Ralph Waldo Emerson, published a book in which he literally uses the term self-help, and soon other so-called self-help books began to appear, just a few at first and then more and more, over time. While it’s hard to know whether our faith began a movement or simply tapped into one already in motion, I find it interesting how connected we are to this idea of the continuity of human development.
Which has, however positively it was intended when our fore-bearers promoted it, this idea has in recent decades taken on almost a life of its own. This idea of the always more always better, always in process. And its discouraging corollary: never, ever, quite enough just as we are.
Kathleen Norris describes our modern predicament in her book Amazing Grace: “Perfection is one of the scariest words I know.” she writes. “It is a marked characteristic of contemporary American culture, [and] a serious psychological affliction. [It] makes people too timid to take [important] risks and causes them to suffer when, although they’ve done the best they can, their efforts fall short of some imaginary, and usually unattainable, standard.”
She goes on to note that the pursuit of perfection distorts our thinking and our self-image, and gets in the way of our emotional growth. She lifts up Martha Steward as a kind of high priestess of this pursuit of the ideal. Where one dare not let the mask slip, even in one’s own home, where all is perfect, right down to the last hand-stenciled napkin ring.
But there’s good news. “The word “perfect” as used in the [Christian scriptures], Norris says, “is not a scary word, [necessarily], 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, full-grown. To those who originally heard it, the word would convey ‘mature’ rather than what we mean today by ‘perfect.’
To ‘be perfect’ . . . “ she concludes, “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, as teacher, friend, [partner].”
It’s a refreshing and reassuring take: to be perfect, to perfect ourselves, does not have to mean being always organized, always together, always impeccable, always in line, but instead, can be about learning to make room, for growth.
And I wonder if the next stage in human development is, paradoxically, to put less emphasis on this ever-escalating call for human development. I wonder whether what comes next is not so much about increasing improvement as it is about about increasing acceptance. Not so much about about forever jacking up our potential, and more about learning to acclimate to what is, to who we are, to building a new relationship with reality, and with each other.
I even wonder if the countercultural history of our faith in particular, calls us in that new direction. Our Unitarian ancestors stood against a mainstream theology that they saw as hampering true evolution. What if we are called to do the same in our day? To step back from the incessant push for self-improvement, and listen for a deeper story? A kinder story? A story with room for more complexity and more reality, more truth?
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes that true perfection is the ability to include imperfection.
And I think of the Navajo rug weavers – they have a tradition of always weaving a flaw into the corner of every rug – is a reminder that as humans, we will never be perfect. Yet it is there – right in that imperfection, that they say, is where the spirit moves in & out of the rug. It’s called the spirit thread.
I think back to that parable about God finding a piece of truth, and Satan wanting to organize it, perfect it, [squeeze out potential for error, make it “better”] or different from what it already was.
I wonder, whether it is possible to organize things into such predictability that there’s no room left for the holy, no room for the unexpected, for serendipity, or grace? And if everything is perfect and we’re never vulnerable we never get to experience the joy of being helped and supported when we fall.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not recommending disorganization as a path to some elusive greater holiness. I’m not saying we shouldn’t plan. In fact, whatever planning and organizing skills I’ve gained over the course of my life have surely made it, and me, more effective, happier, and more able to be helpful to those around me.
And. I also know that an overfocus on getting things just so, can blind me, any of us, to the beauty of what is. If we’ve always got our eyes on the prize, we miss what’s right in front of us. And when we’re always looking to make things better, we cannot notice what’s enough, that we’re enough.
Which leads me back to the question from the service description, from the very beginning of this hour together, which is, what if we knew we were enough? What would we do then?
I asked a friend of mine, a successful, professional woman in her 60’s, who said: I would have more confidence, I would think less about myself & notice other people more. I think I would be more joyful in my relationships w other people she said.
I think of another friend of mine, a successful rabbi, who, in an effort to be more present to his elementary age boys, chose to pull back on work. Together with his wife who made a similar choice in her work, they moved to a smaller house, in a less expensive neighborhood. They decided, that that was enough, that they were enough, without the titles, without the extra money.
And for me: I think enough is like fresh air. It’s like an easing in my being. It’s like oh now I can relax. It’s like a trusting in what is.
What about you? What if you knew, even for a moment, that you were enough, just as you are, right now. What if you didn’t feel you had to strive to be okay? What would that feel like? What would you stop doing? What might you start?
We live in a world of more and more and more, all the time, in every way. We’re told we’re not enough, and too often we believe it. But there’s another way unfolding, a a different message to embrace. A compassion and acceptance. A thread of kindness through it all.
May we listen for our path in this and remember killian McDonnell’s words:
Venus de milo had no arms.
Even the liberty bell, is cracked.