Aristotle Catechism of the Catholic Church
Does My Desire To Be Perfect Have To Be Enslaving?6:00:00 AMEmma Lindle
I was taking a walk after school last semester and I saw a girl wearing a shirt that said, “Being perfect is overrated”. As I continued my day, babysitting, doing homework, and talking with friends, I found myself sympathizing with the motto. At the same time, my sympathy bothered me.
Perfection isn’t bad, is it?
I began to notice the tension between my pursuit of perfection and my pursuit of freedom. Generally, in my school work, relationships, job, and spiritual life, this perfection that I seek is exhausting, enslaving, and just not practical. One temptation is to chalk it up to my ego, self-criticize and give up, but this does not work. The second temptation is to push through with hard work and perseverance, and receive the A+ and a litany of praises for my life looking like it’s all together, but the reality is I can only run this way for so long. The way this temptation rubs against the truth of our humanity is seen in the witness of university students who work hard all week, and even graduate with good jobs, but spend most of their weekends looking for ways out of themselves through alcohol and unchaste relationships. This perfectionist mentality gets us job security and admiration without a sense of personal dignity or capacity for self-gift.
I found myself stubbornly stuck. I have a desire for perfection. As a loyal follower of Mother Teresa and consequently the Jesuit spirituality, it seems that desires are important and should be understood, not ignored. Yet here I am with this desire that seems to only be doing damage. I am not seeking out the local bar yet, but as I write my papers and hang out with friends, I’m not free. In either temptation, I am only looking at myself.
Am I made to perfect myself by myself? Is my desire for perfection a bad desire or misdirected?
Aristotle and many other philosophers have shown that I can only choose the good or a perceived good. They argue man can’t choose evil for the sake of evil. Many of us try to choose perfection, and it seems that it is more than a perceived good we are after. It is different than choosing something that is merely subjectively satisfying. Many times we are willing to sacrifice pleasure as we pursue it. Even Christ calls us to perfection. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
Then it must be my execution.
The seeking of true perfection must not eradicate freedom. “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1) How did Christ seek perfection? [E2]
The normal mode of perfection-seeking is motivated by the value of self-sufficiency. Here perfection is tied to total autonomy and its fruit is the praise and glory of oneself. In this experience, we are isolated from others and stripped of freedom. Why? I have become self-sufficient. I have received praise. I have made no connection with another. It doesn’t seem to be enough. Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” If what she says is true to our experience, then we must seek to become perfect not by way of self-sufficiency, but by way of union with others.
How can we learn to open ourselves to others? How can we see that it is better to be a daughter than to be a god?
The second question might seem like it’s from left field, so I want to briefly explain. As a daughter, I am dependent on my father. As a god, I am not dependent. In the hierarchy of being, God is higher, but we are not God. Therefore it seems fitting for us to claim this dependence because it is a truth of our existence. It does not make us weak. It makes us strong. In seeking to eradicate our dependence, we go against our nature. Claiming dependency is to claim our nature in all its dignity.
It is not enough to validate the logic of this argument. I challenge you to personally reflect upon the second question. Claim deeply your need for dependence. The Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its section on prayer saying that first “man is a beggar before God.” We must become professional askers, constantly aware of and expressing our need to God in our heart.
We have a desire that we cannot obtain on our own. Perfection is an attribute of the Father. Perfection is found not by seeking to perfect ourselves but by seeking the Father. Christ takes us by the chin and turns our head back to him. Navel-gazing is no longer needed. We have Another to live for!
We all encounter a call to perfection in our hearts. It seems to be triggered in moments we experience a lack within ourselves. I want to be a perfect student, but there is a lack. I want to be a perfect friend, but there is a lack. I want to be a perfect daughter, but there is a lack. These moments are filled with all of the intensity and mystery that life can bring. If we could be spectators to our own souls in these moments, we would see the battle ground, and hold on to the edge of our seats in anticipation. Will she chose to call out the Father? Will she remember the dignity of her dependence or will she forget or despise it? Will she have the courage to look at her friend instead of her hurts? Will she have the courage to think of her future students, patients, or children, when the struggle for virtue is real? This could be the moment she receives deeper union with God! In his book, Humility: Wellspring of Virtue, Dietrich von Hildebrand explains:
“Our awareness of ‘being naught’ must not by any means entail on our part a tendency to depersonalize, a kind of drab submersion in impersonal nature. That blissful assent to our creaturliness and our nothingness, our entire dependence on God, must be given freely and expressly: it must be, precisely, a personal act par excellence” (41).
In my next post, I will discuss humility as explained by Dietrich von Hildebrand as a starting point for knowing freedom in the way of perfection. Until then, let’s begin to reflect upon our desire for perfection. Are we free in our pursuit? Do we think of another when we encounter a lack within? Who? Why? Let us be courageous in giving up self-sufficiency and admiration so that we might find union with the Father and his perfection.