Of all the oasis mirages at which I’ve knelt and gulped, Perfectionism has been the most insidious. The conviction of its reality and the mental models I built atop that foundation may take the rest of my life to disassemble. And I'm OK with that. It will be time well spent. No illusion has been more stunting in my growth as a person, more counter-productive in the furnishing of my worldview and ethical intuitions, more corrosive to my mental health, more devilling in my attempt to get a finished sentence on the page. If a theoretical perfect sentence does exist, you could spend a decade trying to crowbar the one you’re writing into closer resembling it. You might die trying. Or die from the trying. If you had an obsessive enough streak you might never arrive at sentence two. And by you, of course I mean me.
In its most popular usage, “perfectionism” refers to a lofty personal standard or philosophy that rejects any contribution judged inferior. I’ll call that lower-case “p” perfectionism, the sort author Elizabeth Gilbert warns against in Big Magic, her book on creative living:
"Perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear... perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.’"
I’m not using the idea of Perfection to mean, simply, top marks. As in the phrase ‘Frightened Rabbit’s album The Midnight Organ Fight is perfect’ (though it is). I use the term 'Perfectionism' to describe a belief system, predicated on the existence of an ideal form against which we can measure deviation (a.k.a. sin). It's then a natural follow-on to bring that almost mathematical certainty into arenas of life filled with ambiguity: art, ethics, faith, etc. Guilt can be understood as the psychic angst and frustration experienced by the inability to bring ourselves and our contributions to this world sufficiently into alignment with this hypothetical ideal.
After becoming disillusioned with Christianity in my mid 30s, I assumed the root of my quarrel with religion hinged on its peddling of truth claims that didn’t stand up to scrutiny. That the world was created ex nihilo in six days. That death and suffering entered the world because my ancestors snacked on the wrong piece of fruit. That Jonah survived in the digestive tract of a giant fish. That there was an otherworldly inferno called Hell into which God would one day plunge his adversary Lucifer along with the rest of the world’s unbelievers. At five years old I anxiously informed my mother, “If the devil has wings like an angel and God throws him into the lake of fire, he could fly out again.” I was doing my best with the facts I'd been given.
Much of the modern case made against religion in the years since the attacks of September 11th has focussed on the ills of religious fundamentalism – terrorism (the attempt to move the world closer to one's model of Perfection through armed struggle), apocalyptic ideology, dogmatism, imperviousness to any scientific finding that contradicts one's holy book, etc. Yet the more I attempt to understand what injury I suffered in my evangelical upbringing, if any, it wasn’t just the systematic teaching of the scriptures as an exam answer key. Religion, and not just its fundamentalist strain, rests atop the premise of Perfectionism – a fundamental faith in the existence of Perfection. Fundamentalists carry this assumption further than their more liberal co-religionists, granted, but the vast majority of Christians take at least a handful of the following from religion's buffet:
- There is a perfect being: God
- Parent: also God
- Human: Jesus
- Book: the Bible
- City: heaven
- Earth: the Garden of Eden, before humanity’s rebellion
- Morality: whatever is consonant with God’s nature
- Sexual expression: straight, married
I could list more, but you get the gist. Religion thrives on the steadying benchmark of Perfection. Having such tidy parameters removes guesswork. People often describe the fundamentalist mode of thinking as ‘black and white’. Even the notion of black represents a taxonomical Perfection. Unambiguous evil. Perfection boasts a reassuring simplicity, whether earned or not. The more perfect the model against which one bases a judgment, the more certainty one feels entitled to marshal.
Bless This Mess
Let's call the antidote to Perfectionism “Messiness”. In almost every zone of knowledge the fundamentalist argues, “It’s simple!” Even as the progressive, fielding the same question, surveys the Messiness before her and says, “It’s complicated!”, deploying caveats and further considerations. The fundamentalist will immediately detect such a response as weakness, insecurity, a smokescreen, a dodge. This is why fundamentalists have a relatively easy time winning converts – they radiate certainty, which makes their conclusions, even the bankrupt ones, feel unassailable. As a child I preferred simplicity. Who doesn’t?
The belief that every living thing appeared on earth in its present form, immutable, unchanging – that’s Perfectionism. Asking somebody to embrace the veracity of evolution, on the other hand, invites them to make a truce with biological Messiness on a grand scale. Whales with hip bones left over from their landlubbing ancestors. Humans with tail bones. Human embryos with gills, with coats of hair covering their entire body but shed prior to birth. Unending change, every living thing a so-called “transitional form”. A whopping 4,500 different species of cockroaches alone. It’s enough to make a Perfectionist dizzy. Ask a creationist about abiogenesis and they’ll tell you, “It’s simple: God did it!” Ask a scientist and they’ll tell you, “It’s complicated! There’s so much we don’t know.”
In Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth, a book-length appreciation of Darwin’s theory of evolution, he considers the biological version of Platonic essentialism, the widespread creationist intuition that animal species possess essential forms in the way that geometric shapes do. That there is, for example, an essential rabbit, a sort of celestial cookie-cutter shape with floppy ears that could be used to stamp out such a form at the dawn of creation. The basic act of giving animals names further adds to the aura of immutability.
"The Platonist regards any [evolutionary] change in rabbits as a messy departure from the essential rabbit, and there will always be resistance to change – as if all real rabbits were tethered by an invisible elastic cord to the Essential Rabbit in the Sky. The evolutionary view of life is radically opposite. Descendants can depart indefinitely from the ancestral form, and each departure becomes a potential ancestor to future variants....
"If there is a ‘standard rabbit’, the accolade denotes no more than the centre of a bell-shaped distribution of real, scurrying, leaping, variable bunnies. And the distribution shifts with time. As generations go by, there may gradually come a point, not clearly defined, when the norm of what we call rabbits will have departed so far as to deserve a different name. There is no permanent rabbitiness, no essence of rabbit hanging in the sky, just populations of furry, long-eared, coprophagous, whisker-twitching individuals, showing a statistical distribution of variation in size, shape, colour and proclivities… All is fluid, as another Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said; nothing fixed. After a hundred million years it may be hard to believe that the descendant animals ever had rabbits for ancestors."
It’s a seductive idea: that we might be able to file living things into categories as clearly labelled as “triangle”, no additional qualification needed. And not just rabbits, but an Irishman, say, or a Christian. I suspect that xenophobia and resentment for immigrants owes much to the dissonance that arises from seeing a Platonic ideal muddied. The smile of a flag-pledging American patriot framed by the fabric of her hijab? Nice try, scoffs the jingoist in his camouflage cap, swatting away the cognitive dissonance, that orbiting mosquito whose buzz never quite goes away.
Perhaps my childhood experience growing up in Ireland in the early ’80s contributed to my illusion of a perfect Irish archetype. We shared an accent. We shared a paleness. How clearly I remember the classmate of mine who spent the entirety of his summer holidays in Africa and returned with his skin tone noticeably darker than when he departed. His transfiguration confused me. Six years on the planet by then and I’m not sure I’d seen anything resembling dark skin till that moment. Homogenous communities, how deftly they trick us into believing cultural purity exists outside the mind.
It’s comforting to imagine we live in a world of sturdy taxonomies. It helps us orient ourselves in the cosmos. Christianity’s various simplifications appear to arise from the same urge. The waypoints of a prepackaged moral system. The equatorial delineation of God and Devil, good and evil, angels and demons, heaven and hell, lost and found.
Once the software of Perfectionism begins running on the human brain, however, it doesn’t stay corralled within the religious sphere. If there’s a perfect God and a perfect book, why shouldn’t there be a perfect mental archetype of what it means to be American? The famous metaphor of The Melting Pot, after all, is simply one way of expressing the desire to reduce the Messiness of cultural pluralism down to the simplicity of a uniform ideal. When Obama took office, the conspiracy shit-show of Birtherism seemed to ooze from a desire to resolve the cognitive dissonance of an American President that diverged from the perfect mental model of what an American looks like, the sort of name he ought to have. It’s easy to understand how a certain kind of fundamentalist would find in WASP-y homogeneity a sort of Perfection. Multiculturalism, after all, is demographical Messiness on a grand scale.
It’s no coincidence the American culture war between Left and Right tends to centre on the issue of abortion. To many opponents of abortion, there couldn’t be an easier ethical quandary. When does life begin? “Simple! At conception, end of story.” When Obama was asked by Rick Warren, at a 2008 campaign stop, when life began, he claimed the question was “above his pay grade”. Obama’s critics pounced on this answer, characterising it as a weaselly attempt to sidestep a question that has a simple answer.
However flippant Obama's answer may have come across, the phrase “above my pay grade” is simply another way of saying “it’s complicated". If a foetus has a heartbeat and can respond to stimuli, can we then conclude that it possesses an immortal soul? That the stopping of its heartbeat ought to be classified as murder? To the Perfectionist, any assertion of Messiness in such an allegedly tidy moral issue will seem unconscionable. To concede that foetal development is a nuanced progression, and carries with it corresponding nuances in our ethical obligations, would require a stand-off with Messiness that might never be satisfactorily resolved. The path of least resistance is to just affirm a belief that life starts at conception, that we have the same ethical obligations to an embryonic stem cell that we do to a 20-year-old college student, and move right along.
In his controversial book Godless Morality: Keeping Religion Out Of Ethics, Richard Holloway, who was still serving as bishop of Edinburgh at the time of its publication, writes:
“I regret it when either side in the abortion debate assumes the moral high-ground, so that prohibitionists give the impression that those who believe in choice have no moral basis for their point of view and are little more than murderers; while pro-choicers sometimes give the impression that abortion is as morally unproblematic as a tonsillectomy. That is why some of us feel acutely uncomfortable in positioning ourselves at either end of the continuum and prefer, however agonisingly, to pick our way with considerable care through the middle of the battlefield.”
It’s hard to imagine a more articulate contrasting of Perfectionism and Messiness.
Like the abortion debate, it’s also no coincidence that the gender issue has become another key battleground of the culture wars. When right-wing Americans get distraught about transgender citizens using bathrooms that align with their gender identity, that anxiety isn’t just about safeguarding the nation's youth against pedophilic opportunists. The opponent of transgender rights, the person who would rather we just file gender dysphoria in the drawer marked mental illness and move on, the person who may even flat-out deny the possibility of sexual ambiguity or hermaphroditism, is simply building a big, not-so-beautiful border wall between themselves and Messiness. Don’t even try to break down the tidy categories of male and female, they seem to be saying, don’t you dare. Boys have penises, girls have vaginas. It’s simple!
The conservative right wing hardly holds a monopoly on Perfectionism. The same propensity manifests on the far Left in abundance. Asserting that all people who oppose gay marriage are bigots – Perfectionism. That all people who have concerns about immigration are backwoods racists – Perfectionism. That all Americans who deem Islam’s radical fringe a threat to national security are paranoid Islamophobes – Perfectionism. All I hear in these epithets is a conviction that, in making such judgments, it’s simple! Human beings are not complicated, the illiberal Left has them all figured out. (Granted, some of the above folks might actually be honest-to-god bigots, racists and Islamophobes. But to tell one from the other, you'd actually need to interact with them and give their views an honest hearing, you'd need to lay down your bag of slurs and quit broadcasting long enough to listen.)
At this stage in my own political affiliations I’m trying to carve out room in the rapidly shrinking centre, but it’s hard. The dialogue polarises to the fringes as people strive to impose a Perfectionistic narrative. Good and evil. White and black. Republican and Democrat. Christian and Islamic. My own father, who delighted for eight years in referring to Barack Obama by the nickname “BO” (geddit? the acronym for body odour) claims to this day that nothing good came out of the Obama presidency, that it was an unqualified mess from start to finish. Partisan Perfectionism, that’s my heritage. To acknowledge the presidency of a rival political party to have produced some positive results, and some negative, that would be a cognitive dissonance too Messy to bear.
Rehearsals For Departure
My long, slow disillusionment with Christianity occurred in direct proportion to my willingness to declare a ceasefire with Messiness. Going all the way back to my high-school love affair with the roots-rock band Vigilantes of Love, who sang about God but also about sex and depression and Eleanor Roosevelt (really). The band’s songwriter Bill Mallonee dropped the occasional bit of profanity, which felt to my Perfectionist sensibilities like eating a healthy salad and occasionally cracking my teeth on a Gobstopper. I would be forced to reconcile that even sentiments laced with profanity could speak a truth worth hearing. A band that was, as the saying went, “too Christian for the secular market, and too secular for the Christian market”, this was Messiness in the artistic domain. The Perfectionism of the Christian music industry demanded that Christian artists sing about Jesus in as literal a manner as possible, and leave the ambiguity and metaphor to their secular counterparts. Anybody raised in the evangelical subculture has seen the chart on the wall at the Christian bookstore: If you like Perfectionism, then you'll love [Christian Artist X].
As I grew older, the dominos of Perfectionism tumbled in slow motion, over the course of years:
- The Bible’s Perfection eroded by my reading of scholars who worked unbridled from the yoke of apologetics.
- The Perfection of my own snazzily costumed Christian family, as it fissured and cracked in ways both overt and subterranean.
- The assumption of one Perfect sexual expression undermined by friendships with flesh-and-blood gay friends and colleagues.
- The Perfection of creation quaking as I took the time to understand how fully the theory of evolution departed from my unchecked checkmates (“then why are there still monkeys?”), as I engaged honestly with the supporting evidence.
- The Perfection of God and the morality to which his nature supposedly gave shape, destroyed by a frank appraisal of his Old Testament rap sheet, refusing any interpretive contortions to make apology for his poor behaviour. The growing feeling that to do so would be tantamount to a battered wife saying, He loves me, he just has a strange way of showing it.
Every time I looked within myself, I observed Messiness, a fact I’d once lamented but had started to regard with more compassion. And, increasingly, pride. Here’s the rub: imperfection is so much more compelling. Imperfection is texture. Imperfection is the Rice Krispies snapping and popping of a record needle on a beat-up LP. Imperfection is the crack in the singer’s voice at the edge of her range. Imperfection is the recipe for surprise. Imperfection is you, and me, all of us beneath our party masks.
A Stepford Wife fem-bot is perfect; yet I still prefer the grit and opinionated spikiness of my wife Summer. Plastic is perfect; I prefer fabric, wood (splinters included) and leather. The auto-tuned pop diva’s voice is perfect; I prefer the idiosyncratic voices of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and Tom Petty and Scott Hutchison and Bill Mallonee and Dave Bazan. Classical music is perfect; I prefer traditional Irish folk music with its improvisation, unpredictability and unpretentious humanity. A mainstream summer blockbuster may have a two-dimensional villain trying to blow up the world; I prefer films (and television and books and video games) in which both the good guys and bad guys have a yin-yang mixture of dark and light.
Certainty is perfect; I now prefer doubt, the modesty it engenders, the journey of learning that terminates not at any destination or epiphany but only at the hard stop of death itself, cutting us off mid-senten_. In the face of such consorting with Messiness, many fundamentalist Christians double-down on their faith. Richard Holloway, a personal hero of mine who I've quoted earlier, describes this impulse in his memoir Leaving Alexandria:
"How does such hard and punishing certainty emerge from the existential gamble of faith? Paradoxically, it is lack of faith and fear of doubt that prompt it. What do you do if you can no longer live with the doubt that is co-active with faith? You try to cure yourself. And the best cure for doubt is over-conviction. A well-known mark of the uneasy doubter is over-confidence. It is like the refusal to let pity weaken you in the face of your enemy. Doubt, like pity, erodes certainty.
"If you are desperate for certainty because you believe only it can hold chaos at bay, including your own inner chaos, then you have to repress your doubt and pump up your convictions. Tone is the giveaway here. If you want to sell something, whether a commercial product or an ideology, hyper-conviction is an essential element in the transaction. Pooling your doubts, sharing your uncertainties, may be humanly more interesting, and may even lead to genuine discoveries that prompt a rueful, modest sort of faith, but it will never persuade multitudes. Or yourself, for that matter, which may be the real name of the game."
When the realisation dawned sufficiently in my mind that God, more than likely, did not exist, I fumed at my indoctrination. I veered into an atheist facsimile of the over-conviction Holloway describes. I splashed offensive memes across my Facebook page, one of which boiled down Christianity to the belief that “some cosmic Jewish Zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.” And there was the meme I posted of Jesus in his crucified posture photoshopped onto a water slide, arms outstretched as he hits the splash pool. (My older brother sent me an angry message telling me I was acting like our father's blowhard hero Rush Limbaugh, and he wasn't wrong.) I was busy working through my anger, my regret over pointless self-chastisement, my embarrassment over what I’d put stock in for so long, for too long. Just like that crucified Jesus, I had my own puncture wounds, many of them inflicted by the very faith I'd embraced with open arms.
I Of The Storm
At a certain point you have to move from the question of “does God exist?” to the more nuanced question of “what are the consequences of believing a God exists?” What are the consequences of Perfectionism?
I’m starting to mellow. I still think the idea of God is a bit nutty – an assessment my Christian friends would likely endorse, even as they press forward into that presence they feel but are happy to consign to mystery. Embracing Messiness to any degree hardly obligates a person to renounce her faith. The move away from Perfectionism can be roughly measured by how many tenets of Perfection mentioned earlier, how many absolute certainties, one has foreclosed on. Is the Bible the perfect inspired word of God or a messy, fascinating porridge of poetry and metaphor? Were its pages written by a perfect God? Or messy humans?
The Bible has transformed in my conception to a work of classical literature, as worthy of study as Homer’s poetry or similarly important works of antiquity. Ethically instructive with sufficient cherry-picking, but hardly a Perfect guide to living. The ritual of prayer has been replaced with mindfulness practice. Being present, being non-judgmental of the Messiness of my own thoughts, attempting not to get swept away in that whitewater. I need infinitely more practice.
I still battle my addiction to Perfection and the easy certainty I once possessed. But I can't afford to keep up the habit any longer. The clinical depression I’ve struggled with throughout my life, for decades unnamed, drew nourishment from my Perfectionism, which in turn drew nourishment from my religious conception of the world. I still feel the overwhelming urge to check out, either mentally or physically, when the Messiness surrounding me gets too intense. Having two young children means I can’t escape it. But it’s a process. I’m getting there slowly. Bear with me. These are the musings of an Irishman with an American accent, remember.