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Being Perfect:
Is It Possible?

by Michael J. Daley

This past Christmas I decided to get a real tree. I'd grown tired of the fake, plastic tree and thought a live one would be just perfect. It would give the place an old-fashioned, "Christmas-postcard" look. So I bundled up and drove out to the country where a friend of mine owned an evergreen farm.

When I arrived, my friend, Matt, said, "I've got just the tree for you." When I saw the first tree my smile turned to a disappointed frown as I said, "It's too small."

He showed me another one to which I replied, "Sorry, Matt, too tall."

"All right," he said, "how about this one?"

"Won't do," I said. "It's too wide."

We then passed another to which he said, "I know, too skinny," to which I responded, "Hate to say it, but yep." Finally, Matt had enough and said, "Mike, I'm glad you came out here but, if you're looking for the perfect tree, you're going to have to buy an artificial one because we don't have any here." His words stopped me right in my tracks. In the drive for perfection, for "just the right tree," things had become so fake. I was concentrating more on the wrapping outside than on the gift inside. Style had become more important than substance. I proceeded to pick out a nice but imperfect tree.

Yet isn't this what you see and hear every day? In health and fashion magazines, the models have perfect bodies. They are fit and trim, wear the latest clothes and have perfect smiles. In sports, athletes are in pursuit of perfection whether it be for an undefeated season, an errorless game or a new world record in an event. Participation takes a backseat to performance.

In school, students feel pushed to get a perfect grade-point average. The pressure to get good grades can overshadow the possibility of formulating new thoughts and ideas. Once again, the result is more important than the process.

You live in a culture that is obsessed with perfection, where failure is not an option. Yet, experience tells you that mistakes are part of life.

In this Youth Update, we'll take a look at this drive for perfection which affects all of us. You'll be invited and challenged to see how you can help yourself and others avoid the "perfectionist trap." We'll look at what perfectionism says about our image of God and see, most importantly, the way Jesus expressed perfection—and embraced imperfection.

The Snake Comes In

The focus on appearances is almost inescapable. Everyone looks good on the beaches of Baywatch and in nearly every one of the endless supply of exercise videos which promise you can look like this, too. At the mall, you feel a lot of pressure to have this color and this style for this season, to have the logo T-shirts and the right shoes.

One student remarked, "I flip through magazines and notice that every female has the same kind of hair, the same body shape and the same perfect skin, It's all done to look absolutely flawless—not a hair out of place, not a zit in sight. Disgusted, I throw the magazine on the floor and flip on the TV. There I see commercials for makeup companies trying to sell us their products so we can look beautiful, glowing and happy."

For many, being good has taken a backseat to looking good. The message that you hear is that if you're not wearing the latest fashions, watching the coolest shows, listening to the hippest music, driving the newest cars and hanging out with the most popular people then something must be wrong with you. You are less than who you should be and, therefore, must change.

Though it sounds new, perfectionism has been around for a long time. Think of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. Their sin, the "original" one, could be called a sin of perfectionism. Their desire was to be different than they were—they weren't satisfied; they wanted to be somebody other than themselves.

Perhaps the most powerful truth that comes out of the biblical creation stories is that humanity, represented by Adam and Eve, is made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Yet, as you experience, sometimes it is so hard to believe that we humans are like God. The stories that you read in the newspaper and see on television seem to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that humans are much too error-prone and sinful to be reflections of God, it doesn't seem to make sense.

Here's where the snake comes in. The snake picks up on Adam and Eve's feelings of inadequacy and incompleteness and appears to offer them a way out when it tells them to eat the fruit and be like God (see Genesis 3:5).

The snake doesn't want them just to disobey God by eating the fruit. The snake wants Adam and Eve to question the very goodness of creation, the goodness of humanity. When they accept the fruit which supposedly will make them "like God," they are rejecting that as humans they are already made in the image and likeness of God! This leads them to feel that they have to become something other than themselves in order to be truly like God.

This temptation is echoed in the thoughts of one young adult; "I put pressure on myself to strive to be perfect. When I am constantly seeing people who are what I think are ideal or are in what I think to be ideal situations, I feel the need to change who I am."

You've heard it before, but it just didn't seem believable: Jesus loves you as you are! Jesus also tells you that, as important as your body is, you are so much more than a body. You are a whole person made up of body, mind and soul.

Like a magician, perfectionism tries to make one see what is not really there or see a distortion of what is there. As one person reminds us, though, "Being real is so much better than being perfect—but fake."

Another sums up what we've been talking about when she writes, "I have learned to accept the way that I am and the way that I will always be. If I want to change I can, but it shouldn't be because of other unrealistic ideals. More importantly than becoming someone else I should be myself."

Recognizing that Jesus loves you as you are doesn't mean that you should always stay the same. Sometimes Jesus calls you to change so you can realize your potential and become your very best self. That is what he asked of his disciples and what he asks of you.

How Do You Love?

Recently pop singer Alanis Morissette wrote a song entitled "Perfect." It contains the lyrics: "Sometimes is never quite enough. If you're flawless, then you'll win my love....Push a little farther now. That wasn't fast enough to make us happy. We'll love you just the way you are if you're perfect."

In a similar vein, a student writes, "I am so stressed out over school that sometimes getting enough sleep at night is an impossible task. I have to pass scary tests, and I have to get good grades or I flip out. I feel that I have to be perfect to impress my parents."

Finally, there is an old legend about a great and wise man. He was respected by all far and wide. One morning while taking his usual walk he passed the village church and seeing that no one was around, quietly entered and walked up to the sanctuary. He prayed, "Jesus, please keep me from ever disobeying you." No sooner had he said this than he heard a voice say in reply, "My son, I want to grant all your prayers. It is my greater pleasure to promise that—even if you should disobey me—you will always know that I have for you a very special love.

I'm sure that there have been times when you've said to yourself, "If I make a mistake God (or my parents or my teachers or my boyfriend or girlfriend or my best friend) won't love me." You may have allowed yourself to think you have to "earn" love by succeeding, by winning, by being the best, rather than simply being yourself and doing as well as you can. You don't mean it, but often you place conditions on the relationships you're in with others: "As long as you do this, I'll do that."

Jesus tells us that God loves us not so much because of who we are or what we do but because of who God is. God loves you unconditionally. God loves because God loves. It's as simple as that. This love will always be there, in your moments of success, but also in your moments of failure.

Naturally God wants you "to do the right thing," but God's love for you will remain even when you don't measure up. The popular author Harold Kushner expresses this poetic truth when he writes, "If God could not love flawed, imperfect people, God would be very lonely, because imperfect people are the only ones around."

There is still a part of us, however, that refuses to acknowledge or to be satisfied with our limitations. Asking for help is too often seen as a weakness. As a result, life becomes a competition.

Many people fear that if they fail at something or make a mistake they won't be accepted. Yes, doing good is the ideal. But a mistake isn't necessarily a moral evil. And even your human sinfulness becomes the very way that you can experience the mercy and love that is God's forgiveness. In the midst of pain and failure Jesus is there to bring healing.

However much you may want to avoid imperfection and pain, there is no growth or maturity without suffering. As you continue to discover, life is often a process of trial and error where you learn not despite your mistakes, but because of them.

Perhaps you've heard this saying: 'The only real failure is the one from which we learn nothing." Perfectionism tries to leave no room for failure which leaves no room for growth. It denies the truth that there is an unfinished quality to human life.

Jesus: Perfect God, Human Man

Was Jesus perfect? The answer depends on what you mean by perfect. One definition of perfect states, "something that is excellent or complete, beyond improvement." Another definition reads, "without any flaws or shortcomings." As one teenager observed, 'We can't even get a perfect definition of perfect!"

According to these definitions, Jesus was imperfect—not a sinner, but a limited human being. For instance, in Luke's Gospel you read, "Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor..."(2:52). When asked when the end of the world would come, Jesus speaks of signs but admits that "no one knows...but the Father alone" (Matthew 24:36). In another place, after a healing, Jesus asks, "Who touched me?" (Luke 8:45). In these passages, Jesus is presented as someone who is fully human, someone who doesn't have all the answers, someone who has to grow and learn through experience.

As we realize when we think of Peter who denied Jesus and Judas who betrayed him, Jesus was not perfect when it came to choosing friends. We can all relate to that. In his earthly life Jesus took the stairs of "gradual growth" rather than the elevator of "instant perfection."

As God, though, Jesus was perfect. His perfection can be summarized in the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: "God does not call us to be successful, but to be faithful." Contrary to the ways of the world, Jesus' perfection is not to be found in his successes but in his faithfulness.

Though Jesus faced pain and temptation, he never wavered in living out the will of God in his life. Jesus always said yes to God. Jesus always said yes to the call of service and love. It is in this sense that Jesus is perfect. This is our calling too.

You've probably heard the biblical citation, "So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). Taken out of context it can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings. When Jesus says this, however, it is beneficial to read the preceding lines of Scripture. There Jesus challenges his listeners to love not just their neighbors. "Do not the pagans [those who don't believe in God] do the same?" he asks. Here Jesus explains that perfection lies in loving your enemies, even praying for your persecutors.

Another place where the word "perfect" is used is when the rich young man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus says to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven" (Matthew 19:21)

From the perspective of Jesus, perfection is about love and service, about letting go of the things that get in the way of your following him. It doesn't have anything to do with getting good grades every time or always being in the winning team.

Perfectionism, as seen through the eyes of faith, is about wholeness. It invites you to love and serve others without concern for gain or notoriety, to accept and care for all of God's people. At the same time, the path to wholeness, or humanness, recognizes imperfection.

As you continue to be "in process" it is good to know that God perseveres with you. God waits and loves and calls us to respond to one another in the same way.

Michael J. Daley is a teacher at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He holds a B.A. is theology from Xavier University (Ohio) and an M.A. in religious studies from Villanova University (Pennsylvania).

This Youth Update was critiqued by Jason Kremer (18), Cherie Nagel (16), Rene Suchland (18), Chad Topp (16) and Wayne Topp (17), all of Holy Redeemer Parish in New Bremen, Ohio. Rose Meyer, director of religious education and youth ministry, invited them to gather for pizza, to read the manuscript, critique it and offer recommendations.

Q.

How can I give compliments to myself when I get so many messages that I'm not perfect?

A.

As difficult as you're finding it, you have many reasons to praise yourself. Your failings and mistakes are just one part of you. Refocus on the positive awareness that you are on a journey of faith. You've left room for improvement, but you are headed in a good direction. Savor your successes. Rely on God's good graces to assist you. Thank God for the ability to keep trying. Messages that lead you to focus on your imperfection help you to improve on a good start. On the other hand, they may be inspired by jealousy, making them a heavy—and unnecessary—burden. The all-important message is that God made you, loves you and wishes you the best at every moment. If you can't compliment yourself listen for the very real voice of God complimenting and encouraging you.

Q.

You say l don't have to be perfect, but that's not the message I hear. Our mistakes reflect on our parents and on our school is what I hear. Don't you think I'd be letting everybody down?

A.

When people tell you to do your best, it's often interpreted to mean to do THE best. In this scenario, mistakes become reflections not only on you but also on the family and school in which you find yourself. As significant as both family and school are, it's important to remember that, in God's eyes, success comes from within and should be measured against the gifts you have been given. Don't let other people's priorities determine yours for you.

Q.

How can I reduce the pressure I put on other people to be perfect?

A.

Reduce it on yourself. If you expect yourself to be perfect, it's only natural that you place a similar expectation on others. Often this means that, instead of being supportive of friends and family, you become critical of them. Rather than creating closeness, this attitude usually causes distance and dislike. Treat your friends as you would your most prized possessions. Think of their great value to you, how you treasure them and love them and focus on these things rather than on any improvements you think are in order.

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