I might be heard asking my kids not to play in their, ahem, playroom I just organized. I might not invite a friend and her kids for an afternoon playdate, either because my house isn’t perfect, or maybe because it is relatively clean and I’d like to keep it that way. I might choose to shame my most volatile child for a brief outburst, thereby completely dismissing all the times that day that she practiced self-control.
Until recently, I might have told you the definition of perfection was "without flaw or blemish," but then I read a definition that said: “as good as it is possible to be." And I can't stop thinking about it. Until recently also I might have told you that I'm not a perfectionist, might have said that "perfect is the enemy of good." I excel in “good enough” work; in fact it seems "good enough" is the name of the game in this season of life. But the more I think about it, I find I do demand perfection, or at least yearn for it, in some areas. My house. My husband. My children’s behavior. Myself. Why?
In a yoga class last week the instructor adjusted one of my poses. And I just hate that. It reminds me of being corrected in school when I really was trying my hardest. Just like in school, my cheeks flushed and I felt inexplicably embarrassed. Actually, he adjusted most of us in that pose that day, and when it was time to practice it on the other side, he said, “You know, each of you that I adjusted had gone lower into the pose than you needed to. I wonder if that speaks to our competitive nature. We don’t always have to do more. That’s not what yoga is about. It’s not what life is about. And it doesn’t have to look perfect.” Gut punch.
When I demand perfection from my children, I show them I don’t really mean it when I say I love them no matter what. I show them that maybe, in fact, I love them a little bit more when their behavior is perfect. I value their outward behavior over their inner condition, or at least I conflate the two.
When I expect perfection from myself, I ensure failure. Some days will be more productive than others, on some I will be calmer with my children than on others, on some I will make it to dinner time and wonder where the day went at all. But feeling too triumphant over the successes or too let down by the failures is to mistake my worth for my accomplishments, when actually the two are entirely separate.
Coffee with a friend at a cluttered kitchen counter is better than sitting in my clean kitchen alone. Noticing the good moments—even in the middle of a bad day—will always build my child up more than picking out her bad moments in a good day. Giving myself grace does more than let me off the hook; it sets the example for my children that they are no less deserving than anyone else of love and grace, and that it is impossible to "love others as you love yourself" if you don't actually love yourself. I am making it okay for the people around me to show themselves grace too.
But when I seek unattainable perfection, I decide that my actual life, marriage, home, children and even self aren’t as good as it is possible to be. I unwittingly declare that something more, something else, someone else would be preferable. I send a message of disapproval and rejection, encouraging striving and pleasing from my people, when all I really want is grace and acceptance and love for and from them. I'm not against self-improvement or goal-setting, not hardly. But I am against reaching so hard and so far for some distant ideal that, in the process, we miss the real, tangible, right-in-front-of-us, very good life we already have. My flawed marriage, my stumbling parenting, my messy home, my clunky way with friends and family members, all of it might one day be better, all of it might benefit from modest improvements over time, but all of it--ALL of it-- is perfect now because it is real and true and mine.
So what is perfect? Recently an acquaintance had a baby. She had known for about half of her pregnancy that he would be born with chromosomal abnormalities, and from afar I watched her handle and share that news with the utmost grace. As she joyfully announced his safe and healthy birth on Facebook, I read the comments from her friends with interest. I’ve noticed people seem to use one of four adjectives when a baby is born: he or she is beautiful, precious, sweet or perfect. I read through lots of kind comments but noticed one of those adjectives was notably absent. With tears in my eyes I looked at the photos of this adorable little boy, hand-picked for this family to love. He was as good as it was possible to be. And I knew what to say: “He is just perfect.”