Perfectionism

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Songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote, “Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” There is no perfection in life. Each of us is given a different hand to play and our job is to do the best we can with what we’ve been given to work with. There is no “perfect offering.”

There are many people who suffer greatly from the disease of perfectionism. Perfectionists hate the hand they have been dealt and spend every waking moment trying to make their hand perfect. They obsess about everything that’s wrong. They anxiously wait for that magical day when it will all come together and then they will be able to relax and enjoy life. Their obsession with perfection is exhausting, emotionally and mentally. They have no peace.

At the root of it all, perfectionists hate their limitations and those of others. They hate all those “cracks” and spend their time trying to seal them up even as new ones continue to appear.

Now enter Judaism into the perfectionist’s world. Judaism sets the bar high and encourages us to strive for greatness. The Torah commands us to emulate God. We are commanded to strive to emulate the character traits of God, not become perfect like Him. The spiritual culture of Judaism is meant to inspire, uplift, and motivate us to become better people. But within such an environment, the perfectionist only feels depressed and hopeless, for deep inside he worries that he’ll never be like these people who seemingly have it all together. Panic eats away at him as his life slips by in mediocrity. Henry Thoreau was certainly speaking about the perfectionist when he said, “Most people live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

There is only one solution. We must embrace imperfection, or what I prefer to call “finitude.” Embracing finitude means embracing limitations. It means facing the truth that much of life is about failure, disappointment, missed opportunities, undeveloped potential, broken promises, broken dreams, unmet longings, uncertainty and confusion. There is no perfection anywhere. There is no perfect friend, parent, sibling, spouse. There is no perfect rabbi, community, or shul.

Those who have freed themselves from the prison of perfectionism are those who embrace their humanness, limitations and imperfectness. They live in reality and taste its sweetness. They have stopped looking for “the answer” that will make life perfect. They are at peace with their brokenness and feel no shame or remorse. This is not a state of resignation. I am not describing people who have given-up and are resigned to mediocrity. Far from it; because of their total acceptance of their limitations they feel emboldened to become their very best self. They play the hand they have been dealt without bitterness, resentment or pressure. They have made peace with it and are content with their portion. They rejoice in the struggle and the slow process of change. They celebrate being just human.

We either embrace life as imperfect or we fight it with disdain and anger. The latter option is the world of the perfectionist. One who fights finitude experiences chronic existential despair. One who embraces finitude and limitation finds peace, vitality and joy in living.

“Everything has a crack in it, that’s how the light gets in.” Let’s embrace our “cracks” and our brokenness and let the light of the beautiful shine through. Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.