Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Perfectionist

Last summer, I was privileged to take a class on how to “write” an icon. For one week, I intensely studied and copied the sacred features of Our Lady and the Child Jesus in a 14th century Russian icon. It was a very powerful experience—contemplative and almost like a retreat.

On the final day, after much hard work and long hours, I had nearly completed the icon. As I finished tracing the last few strokes in Christ’s halo, I set down my red-dripping paint brush too hurriedly, and to my shock it scattered splashes all across the image. Fortunately, such a mistake was reparable, and I instantly began to wipe it away; I painstakingly scanned the painting for any pin-point red blotches.

When I had the last red marks wiped away, I began to apply a protective coat of varnish to the
image. As I ran the brush, dripping with the thick, glossy varnish, over the edges of my painting, I realized to my horror that there was a glaring red splatter on the side of my “storm-blue” border, unfixable and obvious to the artist’s eye, and it was now sealed beneath the irremovable coat of varnish. To me it seemed like a bleeding wound in the lovely body of the icon. I didn’t understand how I could have missed it. I gasped and panicked, allowing the other ladies in the class to try and soothe my vanity by telling me it was not noticeable. Then, as I stood there, dripping varnish from my brush and lamenting loudly, one of these kind ladies spoke up.

“That’s good.”

“What?” I sputtered nervously, and stared at her, failing to comprehend what she meant.

“That red dot is good,” she said patiently, “even though no one can see it really but you. Nobody’s perfect. Only God can make something perfectly, so it’s good to have that little flaw on your icon to remind you of your human failures.”

I could do nothing but sheepishly bite my lip, nod, and proceed with my varnishing. I knew she was right. She had discovered my secret: I was a perfectionist. I had prided myself on the quality of my painting, and even secretly attributed it to my obsessive attention to detail. My reaction of melodramatic distress at the tiny flaw was simply a result of the perfectionism which could not stand to admit I had made a mistake, that my work was not perfect.

This is because perfectionism is simply another kind of pride. There is a whole world of difference between doing something to the best of your ability, honestly trying to complete a job as well as you can, and having an unnatural drive to do something perfectly.

Of course, Jesus said, "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” didn't he? Yes: but what that means for Christians is constantly striving for that ideal of holiness, pursuing it with determination in spite of our mistakes and flaws, getting back up again after we fall. That does not mean refusing to accept that we can make mistakes, or despairing when we do. Hard work and a determination to do something right is admirable; pursuing an ideal is the motivation for man’s greatest achievements. But perfectionism is not the pursuit of an ideal; it’s a sort of hopeless agony over miniscule errors, an improper focus—ignoring the bigger picture to point out the flaws that do not ultimately make any difference at all. The idealist will fight for a main goal and willingly endure a thousand little annoying imperfections if they do not compromise his principles or ultimately hinder his progress; for, as G.K. Chesterton once said, “Idealism is only considering everything in its practical essence.” The perfectionist, on the other hand, will not be satisfied unless every detail is flawless—something that, in truth, is unachievable on earth. So he will often be ungrateful and unsatisfied with a job well done; no matter how good it is, he will find a flaw. If a student, he is distressed with a grade of 99 instead of a 100, even if he studied his hardest; he quibbles about unimportant details when working on a project with others. An idealist learns from his mistakes. A perfectionist won’t let them go.

The irony is that a perfectionist sees his own motivation with a skewed perspective. He may tell himself he is doing something to please another, or to make someone proud of him, or to do something worthy of his talents, or even to give glory to God. But in reality, when his drive is perfectionism, he is doing it for himself, to satisfy his own desire. It’s a desire that assumes he can exceed his human limitations by his own power; he fails to humbly recognize that what good things he does or makes are not ultimately to be attributed to him, but to the One who made him.

The pride of perfectionism goes hand in hand with false modesty. Both are a sort of lying, to oneself or another, because authentic humility is simply the truth, which sees everything plainly in the clear light of virtue, in its proper position according to its relationship to God. Such is the humility that allowed St. Thomas Aquinas to call his great works of theology, which are priceless when laid beside other human works, “a pile of straw” when laid at the foot of the Cross.

My friends will often remark upon the beauty of my icon. I try my best to receive their kind comments graciously and with gratitude; but when they are gone, I take a peek at the little red dot on the side of the painting, to remind me that true humility will recognize that even in my best achievements, I am not perfect—I am a finite, faulty creature, and can only pray God to bring something good out of the talents he gave me in spite of my mistakes and sins.

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