I was minding my own business, dozing away in church, pretty much incoherent to the speaker’s voice. I kept my head slightly turned to the right so my wife couldn’t see my closed eyes. Then I faintly heard the speaker quote Mathew 5:48, “Be Ye Perfect even as your Father which is in Heaven is Perfect.” I was jolted awake. For the first time that scripture hit home.
What where the chances of me becoming perfect? Not a prayer – zilch, zero, nada – no chance at all. If anything I was a shining example of imperfection on all fronts. And I started to think, “does the Lord really expect perfection?” You know, a perfect family, perfect child, perfect body, prefect job, perfect marriage, and even perfect faith. The only perfect I knew were people that were a perfect pain in the rear end.
As a young boy my dad had told me, “You’ll never be perfect, son, but you can grow into someone I can be proud of if you work hard.” He also had a few other things to say when he was unhappy with me, such as, “I ought to send you to work for a year on a ranch in Wyoming,” (I’d always viewed Wyoming as a place created for people to move away from) and, “I’ve never seen such a Numbskull kid,” and, “Do you think you’ll ever amount to anything?” All physiologically approved back in the 50’s. I generally let his comments roll off my back assuming they were said in humor – but he certainly was letting me know that I wasn’t going to be prefect. And as usual my mother backed him up reciting how imperfectly I had washed the dishes last night.
But, back to the church bench. My eyes starting to glaze again, but my sleep was disturbed as I thought about the scripture. I wondered that if we are something other than perfect, could we still satisfy ourselves and the Lord – to strive towards being better than average and sometime, just sometimes, achieve excellence. That is how interpreted the Scripture in Matthew. I thought, even if we could achieve perfection, it leaves us nowhere to go but down as the next similar event in life rolls in. My daughter was a perfect straight A student in school, but she was stressed all the time because she couldn’t improve, only decrease her grades in the future and be seen as a failure – each time grades came out she was racked with Anxiety and Fear. For most of us, a B+ is okay and sometimes a ‘C’ ain’t all that bad. I got one in an Organizational Behavior class and it was a gift.
I thought, “do we each have a perfect dream in our minds that we are striving toward and then find that realizing that perfect dream is fleeting and unsatisfying?” I thought about Hollywood and its cadre of the rich and famous – striving to get a bronze star on the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard. What happens when they are replaced by a better looking, more talented competitor? Or even one with better plastic surgery? They thought their title as an Actor defined whom they were, along with that star imbedded in the marble on the Walk of Fame. When that fame disappears, they have nothing to hold on to. If perhaps our own dream is realized then we should enjoy it to the hilt that day, knowing that it will fade soon enough.
I have a friend who has had the same dream for 30 years. That dream is to become incredibly wealthy and sail to Tahiti with an all girl crew – a perfect life for him. First of all, by the time he hits the monetary big time, the all girl crew will not be too interested in him as an aging geezer. And since his wealth will be well known, every brother-in-law, shirttail relative, acquaintance, shallow friend and even non-shallow friends, all will want to borrow money or backing for their latest scheme. Now he will have to worry about someone robbing his house or kidnapping his wife and children. He won’t vacation without bodyguards protecting his family. With his wealth, he will be a target to be the chairman of numerous charities (the real purpose is to have him be the main donor – and lead by example). And if he doesn’t respond, he will be characterized as a ‘Scrooge’.
Religious and Political opportunities will abound – most of which he won’t want anything to do with. Everyone whom he has had contact with will want something from him. Acquaintances and even friends will secretly want him to fail – getting some perverse satisfaction of watching him go down. So much for finally realizing a perfect dream of wealth.
What about Room For Error? In being perfect there is no room for error in the future. If you get a perfect score on the college SAT’s, you are expected to get straight A’s all through college – there is no room on the upside and only failure on the downside. You have to explain the slightest deviation/imperfection. One way is about growth in the future and the other; ‘no room for error’.
We sometimes look at our own failures as someone else’s fault – we believe we are the victim in the mix– quickly looking for someone to blame and maybe make a profit from it. We try to escape any accountability and are always looking over our shoulder to see if we are going to be caught. While on the other hand if we step up to take full responsibility for our actions, we can have much better peace of mind and life is easier to live – and its satisfying behavior. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a criminal who is caught red handed immediately confess his crime rather than lawyering up and doing everything he can to escape the consequences?
I also like to think of excellence as looking at what works and then try to enhance that. If you are trying for perfection then it’s always a Right/Wrong – Good/Bad experience. Its like trying to get a teenager to clean their room – it’s either completely clean or something else – usually something else – and leads to massive frustration. Years ago I assigned my children duties to do each day – cleaning up the dishes was an example. Many times I was irritated by them not completing the tasks – the harder I tried to get them to do everything on the list and have a perfect score, the more frustrated I became. But when I worked with them, the results were much better. It was easy for me to see what worked and what didn’t. Trying to have them do everything perfect didn’t work – period. Perfection calls for Right and Wrong, while excellence is understanding that if something doesn’t work there are other alternatives.
Here are some verses from Shelley’s “Ode To a Skylark”:
We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are
Those that tell of saddest thought
The first two lines from Shelly’s stanza talk about concentrating on Before/After/Then/When – achieving perfection in our minds. Where excellence requires us to live in ‘the Here and Now’ – to be conscious of where we are in life. Can we live in the moment and not in our stories, memories or future plans. When someone says, “At least I have my memories,” I tend to think they have given up trying to see each day as a new adventure.
Really, the Process/Journey is everything. The prize, say of summiting the Grand Teton faded very rapidly for me – my climbing ability was enough to get up, but was miles from being perfect. Maybe we need to try to make sure we enjoy the moment, not reviewing it over and over as a continuing reward. In trying to be Perfect, we tend to see ourselves as the results. If we have a really cool car, like a Ferrari, we tend to think the red paint and the roar of the 12-cylinder engine is what defines us. When someone is introduced, many times the occupation or success is mentioned right after the person’s name (“this is John, he is an Investment Banker for BankAmerica”). I’ve never seen anyone introduced as an excellent father, fantastic grandson, or anything like that – much more important than being introduced as the President of Microsoft.
It seems to me that out of always trying to get to the point of perfection, (and holding on to it with a death grip) comes frustration, tension, anger, fear and confusion. But doing the best we can, (sometimes with excellence) can come joy, ease, acceptance, fulfillment, and peace.
As these thoughts bounced around in my mind, I wondered what does all this mean? That we should toss our goals away; knowing we can’t become perfect; thinking we can do anything significant? I don’t think so. To me, it means that we should try every day to be our most excellent self. To realize that along life’s path there will be mistakes and heartache and many difficulties, but that is part of the journey. That we will not always be able to reach our expectations and that sometimes we really do need to be happy with our non-perfect results and live in the moment. I believe that the short scripture in Matthew really means that.
The meeting was about over and I had spent most of it in tiring, complex and imperfect thoughts – exhausting really. I slumped back in my pew, eyes gently closing, imperfect right there in church. I decided then and there that I would rather continue my attempt to try to be slightly above average (with an occasional blip up towards excellence), and to leave the goal of perfection to others who understand Matthew better than I.