I was a middling student in high school. But my first semester at college I managed a perfect 4.0 and from that report I became obsessed with maintaining said perfection. (I failed.) Those of us who strive for perfection often find imperfection actually painful. It wasn’t until years later that I stumbled on a quote (whose author I have long since lost) from a theologian who mused that perfectionists were in fact functional atheists. (That is people who behave as if God doesn’t exist.) And that idea stopped me in my tracks.
I do not have anything against atheists, we all have our own walk. But I am not one, I have always, since I was a very young child had strong, repeated experiences of the presence of the Divine in my life. So the idea that I might be acting as if God did not exist was enough to draw me up short.
Imperfection & the Spiritual
Human beings are not perfect. So (ironically perhaps) perfectionism is doomed to failure, we will eventually make a mistake. That does not stop the lure of perfectionism, or its lie that we must act as if we are God. Perfectionism whispers in our ear that the world will stop if we don’t try our hardest. That life will end if we don’t finish on deadline.
Perfectionism convinces us that we have the sort of power to create and destroy that human beings simply don’t possess. It is a lie. As I have gotten older (and I hope wiser) I have come to view all spirituality as being about imperfection. And I have tried to embrace imperfection as a corrective to our cultural drive for perfection.
Spirituality is a wide and complex field. It covers everything from meditation, to art, to intimate personal experience. And yet at its core it is about imperfection because spirituality is meant to create growth and that which is already perfect cannot grow or change, only the imperfect can. The spirituality of imperfection is what it means to be human.
The Path to Imperfection
Across spiritual traditions there is a shared thread that connects spirituality to a child-like nature. Often we assume this is about innocence, or simplicity, but I believe it goes deeper: to the root of what makes us human; our ability to let ourselves be imperfect.
When I was a child I finger painted with abandon. I slap paint from my hands onto paper for the sheer joy of it. My trees were purple, my sky was yellow, and stick people were as big as houses. Early on children play and learn without worry that they are going to make a “mistake.”
And there’s an important reason why children make so many mistakes without fear or anxiety: learning (growth/change) requires mistakes. You don’t learn from a perfect performance. You learn from your mistakes. If you have never screwed up, you’ve never learned anything.
Embracing the Spirituality of Imperfection
One of my greatest struggles is shared by a lot of modern (and ancient) humans. I love to read about spirituality, or creativity; and I love to watch videos of other people being creative or spiritual. But when it comes to actually practicing those things I am far more likely to procrastinate.
Because I (probably like you) am afraid of failing. So long as our spirituality (or creativity) remains theoretical it remains perfect. The moment we put it into practice it becomes inevitable that we will make a mistake, we will mess up, we will fail. And in our culture failure isn’t tolerated.
My mother had a strategy when I was afraid to try someone new or difficult as a child. She would think for a bit and then ask: “Ok what’s the worst thing that could happen?” And I would stammer and ponder and finally say something like “I could mess it up!”
And my mother would nod and ask: “would that involve you getting hurt?” It usually did not. She would ask if it would involve me breaking something irreplaceable. No to that as well. Generally messing up would involve “wasting” some paint and paper. Or looking silly in front of my friends. Or breaking something that could be repaired or replaced.
And when she put it that way I usually realized that the worst thing that could happen wasn’t, really, that bad. And off I’d go to try whatever it was I’d been terrified of moments before.
The worst that could happen in our spiritual practice? Not doing it at all. Doing and failing is infinitely more desirable than not doing at all, because in doing and failing we will have at least learned something.
The God of Imperfection
There is an old, old story that says that the story of creation found in Genesis wasn’t the first story. In the first story of creation God made the world a number of times, but didn’t get the sky right, or the rain didn’t work, or the animals were all wrong. And so God scrapped it all and started over. Another story says that Eve wasn’t the first woman made, no that was Lilith, who took one look at Adam and God and their boy’s club and left. Eve was woman 2.0.
Most of us were raised with sanitized versions of scripture. As a Christian I was raised that God is all knowing, unchanging, and perfect. When I started reading scripture (sacred story) for myself I discovered a God who couldn’t find Her children in the garden, who changed Their mind on a regular basis, and could be haggled with pretty readily.
In Hindu tradition the goddess Akhilandeshvari (her name means literally “never not broken”) presides over flux, change, and the breaking inherent in these things. Her brokenness, her imperfection is her power.
For most Westerners the idea of Divine Imperfection might seem like heresy. But our ideas of perfection are narrow and constraining and if there is one thing I have learned in my years as a theologian it is this: do not try to erect a fence around the Divine. In other word, don’t tell God what God cannot be. It won’t work. You cannot fence the wind.
Now before anyone gets really upset, I am not suggesting “anything goes.” Neither am I suggesting that growing, learning, and becoming better isn’t a valid goal. Rather I am embracing those things, I refuse to let my fear of not being perfect keep me from doing the work of spiritual growth.
And so I practice the spirituality of imperfection. I look for places where I can try something new, where I can try on a new spiritual practice, learn from another religion (even if it shows up shortfalls with my own), risk failure. Because failure isn’t a bad thing. Failure teaches us, and the spirituality of imperfection thrives on failure.
Perfectionism is a miser, it closes its fists tightly around our neck and whispers in our ear that we are only worthy if we are perfect. But the great religions of the world all contain within them the truth that human beings, never perfect, are still worth something.
In Christianity the idea of grace is just this: it is unearned. It cannot be earned by being perfect, and it cannot be lost by being imperfect. It is gift from a loving Divine; unearned, always.
When we practice our imperfection we rest in grace, in the idea that we are loved and loveable just as we are. It is not our need to be perfect that drives us to grow and learn. Instead, it is our experience of being safely loved that frees us to grow in joyful response.
Embracing who we are
And so I practice imperfection daily, in the sure and certain knowledge that Love cannot be driven away by my failures. I can fall down a thousand times and the One I seek will be there to lift me up each and every time. And this allows my spiritual practices to yield much more fruit.
Think about it. If I am terrified that I will fail in my meditation I am unlikely to ever sit down on the matt. Or to sit for as short a time as possible to minimize mistakes. If I am unworried about failure, if I consider mistakes part of the spiritual exercise then I will go gladly to my meditation cushion, and sit for far longer.
And I will fail. I will make mistakes. My monkey mind will wander away into the world of grocery lists and anxiety. But when I practice imperfection I sit in gentle awareness that this will happen. When it does, instead of giving up, I can say “ahah, it has happened.” Let go of the moment, and return to my practice.
A funny thing happens when you do this: you get better at meditation.
And this is true for every other spiritual practice as well. As you fail, and start over, and learn from your mistakes you get better and your skill grows. You will never reach the point where you make no mistakes (at least I have never met such a person), but you will grow and mature and make fewer (or at least different) mistakes.
My invitation to you, today, is to try something. Try something despite the sure knowledge that you will make a mistake. Keep trying, even though you will eventually fail. This is the spiritual life, and we grow in no other way.