Monday, September 17, 2007

Yom Kippur: Perfectionism, the Cult of Control, and the Journey to Wholeness

We are in the Yamim Noraim. The Days of Awe. Yom Kippur is coming. And every Yom Kippur, I try to do it perfectly. This is the first annual Yom Kippur musing that I will blog. G-d willing, I will not repent perfectly, but rather live imperfectly and thus have more to muse about next year.

An admission. I am a perfectionist. I am not a "recovered perfectionist" or even a "recovering perfectionist." Alas, I am a dyed in the wool, true blue perfectionist. Whether it is a personality trait or whether it is determined by other attributes; whether it is genetic or developmental or environmental in origin, I do not know. But I am one. A perfectionist.

And there is something that I do know about this trait: it is highly rewarded in our culture. That unbroken string of A-grades in high school, those scholarships I received in college, that really high and darn near perfect GPA all attest to that fact in my own life. And I know something else from nearly half a century of wrestling with this highly-rewarded trait: It can be really, really difficult to live with regardless of whether you are the individual living with the trait or the unfortunate soul living with the individual living with trait. Or both. Like me.

The phrase "good enough for the government" has no currency in our household. In fact, it took me a long, long time to understand that phrase in a positive manner. I finally understood it in a flash when I was teaching a chemistry class how to differentiate between accuracy and precision. "Accuracy," I explained, "Means how close you can come to the correct answer for a measurement. For example, if the answer is 1.36 kilos, and your scale gives you a weight of 1.30 kilos, you are accurate only to the tenth of a kilo. Well, actually, kilos aren't really measuring weight at all--they are measuring mass, but in the common parlance we say weight, but...Class--don't worry about that last bit. Just focus on the meaning of accuracy." (Did you catch my perfectionistic aside that I had to correct in order not to confuse the issue further)?

But on to precision. "Now precision," I told the class, "Is something else. It tells us the number of decimal points to which a particular instrument is capable of measuring. For example, our balances in here can give us a mass to the nearest tenth of a gram. Suppose I take the mass of an object and it comes to 4.2 grams, but there is play in the pointer between the point 2 and point 3 mark. And it settles halfway between. Then I can estimate the hundredth of a gram, making it 4.25 grams, but no further! I cannot say that it is 4.23 grams and I cannot say that it is 4.250 grams. My instrument is not calibrated precisely enough for me to make any further estimations."

And at that moment I got it! The phrase "good enough for the government" does not mean that the government is okay with sloppy and therefore inaccurate measurements. It is not talking about accuracy at all! Rather it means that in a particular instance, you do not need further precision than what you have! I felt like shouting "Eureka! I have found it!" Of course, I did not. I thought I had said enough to confuse my students for the day. I admit I am slow. It only took me around 20 extra years to figure that out compared to your average person--the one who had it down at age 20 or so. But I have an excuse. My perfectionism got in the way.

Lately, I have come to develop another hypothesis about perfectionism. My new hypothesis came from several different streams of thought that I have been pondering lately. One is from reading Tom Brown, Jr.'s books. You know that reading blitz that our family has been up to lately? Well it has entered my consciousness and has been rumbling around in my cortex, causing all sorts of interesting ponderings that are quite unrelated to what my cortex is supposed to be processing given the two tests I have this week. It's amazing how productive I am at pondering right near test time. One might think that it is an avoidance mechanism. But that's kind of Freudian, don't you think?
Anyway, back to Tom Brown, Jr., the illustrious Tracker. All of his writings contain references to a spiritual element that underlies his tracking and survival abilities. Sometimes he states it explicitly, but mostly it is implicit to his world view. The idea is that you will think and act like an alien on your own planet until you understand yourself as a part of the whole, living being of the environment you are in. When this happens, you become a part of a whole greater than yourself and experience a belonging in the environment that makes the process of survival natural and undifficult. It becomes like experiencing flow. You are not trying. You are being. Sounds Zen. Or Chassidic. Or mystical. In other words, it is a truth that underlies all of the myriad religious traditions humanity has developed. The point is that the Tracker talks about wholeness and being part of a living whole. As we shall see, I have come to see that perfectionism is the antagonist of wholeness and of life.

Another thread for the wool-gathering comes from some other reading that I am doing. I have been reading a book called The Overscheduled Child which was previously called Hyper-parenting. The authors changed the name because a lot of parents would not even pick it up due to the implied criticism of their parenting. See what I mean by perfectionism being a highly rewarded trait in our culture? The authors talk a lot about the origins of the need to be perpetually active and competitive in our culture. They believe it comes from a false sense that we can control all outcomes if we are perfect parents.

Finally, at Rosh Hashanah second day services, I ran into a friend that I had not talked to in a long time. In the course of our conversation with still another person, she brought up the fact that I am a member of 'the club.' She meant the cancer survivor's club. And she commented to both of us that, "Elisheva has been through some really tough experiences and low moments, but through them I have seen her grow." Turning to me, she said, "You have given up running around trying to control everything all the time, and you now have a peace and wholeness you did not have before." (I call it an AFGE--Another F-ing Growth Experience. It's another version of the two-by-four's that the Eternal regularly aims at our heads. Look, I rely on G-d, but that doesn't mean that I think S/he/it is nice. As 'Rabbi' Mick Jagger puts it, you get what you need).

I began talking about how, really, this was not a conscious change on my part. What really happened was two-fold. First, I went through my cancer experience rather passively. I was exhausted from surgery, my marriage had ended, I was trying to raise my kids and support them all on my own, and now I had treatments to manage as well as a household to keep up. Not to mention that full time job that goes with supporting said kids. I was too damned tired to remember my own name half the time, let alone try to control what was happening. And it felt good to be passive and not try to "run around controlling everything." Secondly, I went through anger. I was angry that I had spent more than twenty years being a good girl. I ate right. I exercised right. I denied myself chocolate. I did Tai Chi. I got A's. I was darn near perfect. And it still happened. I got cancer. Obviously, attempting perfection did not lead to control. And control did not lead to a perfect outcome. In fact, the outcome was downright lousy. All that work and misery about perfection and I get this? The big "G" really does have a twisted sense of humor.

Aside: One side effect of this is that I no longer buy into the "perfect health, perfect body" mythology that pervades the airwaves in the US. I now enjoy eating and drinking and being satisfied. I figure that G-d designed chocolate to go with your whole grain cereal and morning coffee, and that a glass of wine with Brie is as close to the Garden of Eden as I'll ever come. And that union with my husband on Shabbat really does help reunite the Eternal and the Shechinah, even if my body and his are far from the ideals that grace every fashion magazine in the western world. I'm going to die sometime in the future no matter what and I refuse to stand before the Eternal and say that I did not enjoy every good thing creation offered because I was worried it would kill me. That means Tai Chi and CHOCOLATE. Walking and Wine. Break the symetry and live!
Of course, I do not do that perfectly either. But every time I slip into perfectionistic thinking I make myself and everyone around me unhappy. As I said, It comes slowly to me.

But back to the hypothesis I mentioned.
Hypothesis 1: Perfectionism arises in part from the idea that we can control all outcomes.
Hypothesis 2: This concept of control comes from the idea that human beings have godlike power and is, therefore, idolatrous.

Now on to some language lessons.

First: The word "perfect" has a teleological implication. Perfection is something to be attained at the end of something. It is not a state of being and becoming. It is a state of finality. Or to put it more plainly, as the biologist that I am: Perfect is non-living. No living system can be perfect. Since perfection implies lack of growth and change, anything that is perfect cannot be living.

Second: There is no Hebrew word for perfect. Any translation that renders a Hebrew phrase into something like "perfect sacrifice" has been misunderstood. The closest we can come is the Hebrew root, Shin-Lamed-Mem
שלם, which gets rendered into words like Shalom, Shalem, and Shleyma. The root meaning has the sense of wholeness or completeness. The greeting 'Shalom aleichem,' often rendered as 'peace be with you,' is really wish for wholeness. Shalem, as in "Ma-shlemcha?" which is often rendered as "How are you?" actually means something like "how is your health/wholeness?" Think about it: the English word health, comes from hale and means whole. And that brings us to the problematic word "shlayma" which is the one that gets translated as "perfect." But the sense of the word is more like "complete" or "whole." As in the phrase "refuah shleyma" which gets translated sometimes as "perfect healing." It would be better translated as something like "complete healing" or "whole healing."

As I said, I am a perfectionist. And perfectionism is death. It is idolatry. So what to do?
Well, the first step is definitely not to apply perfectionism to becoming whole! I am going to become whole and try to do it perfectly! That's a trap!
Do you see where it is, o wise and gentle reader? The trap is in the trying. Trying is stress. Trying is hard. It disarticulates things rather than putting them together.
Our culture is about reductionism. The art of picking things apart into smaller and smaller pieces until nothing means anything. And at Yom Kippur, this is what perfectionists like me tend to work at. Taking it all apart. Trying to find out where we failed at perfection. Resolving to correct it. To be more perfect next year. An impossible task.

Wholeness--well, that's the state of things that are living and being. Completeness.
Somehow, you cannot try to become whole. You either are or are not whole. You either are or are not part of the whole. Wholeness. Oneness with "the Spirit that moves through all things." Completeness.

I seem to be approaching the idea. And I get that getting it is the same thing as being it. It is like approaching a limit in math. You can approach and approach but you will never get there. You are there. Or not. You are whole. Or not. It's like I need a calculus to transcend the dichotomy. (I always did say that math is mystical in the extreme). Thank goodness I do not have to become like Isaac Newton and invent this calculus. It is there in the practices and teachings that underlie all of human spiritual ritual and custom. Including mine.

So this Yom Kippur, I am not going to work at it. I am not going to try. I think I'll just get dressed in white and be there. Fast not because it is hard and making things hard is the way to get to wholeness. Fast rather because it allows one to understand the fundamental importance of the cycle of hunger and fulfillment, of thirst and satisfaction, of emptiness and fullness. It is not the one or the other. It is, rather, in the completion of the cycle, the fusion of the yin and the yang, the devekut--the clinging--of Adonai and Shechinah--the completeness of the sparks from the shattered vessels, that allows us to break the dichotomies and become at one with all of life.

In Yiddish it is rendered in a more homely way:
Es iz nito a gantsere zakh vi tsebrokhn harts.
There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.

There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.
Not a perfect heart. A perfect heart is non-living. It is a fantasy, an idol we pursue because we are so alien to where we actually live.

That is Yom Kippur. To stand before the Eternal offering only the wholeness of a broken heart.

May we all be inscribed for life and goodness, wholeness and blessing in the new year.
(Note that the word perfect is nowhere to be found in this blessing!)


Amie said...

Wow, some deep thinking. I didn't realize you had cancer, if you ever mentioned that I missed it.

Very interesting about the word "perfect" having no equivalent in Hebrew. I like the idea of "whole" much better.

Melora said...

Wow! That is wonderful! I need to read it again to get everything, but you sure packed in a lot of good stuff!
I always thought "Good enough for government work" meant mediocre.

Frankie said...

Wow, another brilliant post. I'm going to have to revisit it a time or two.

I'm a perfectionist, too, and sometimes short of being hit with a 2x4, it takes awhile for something to sink in that is against our grain. =)

Thank you!

MLight said...

What a beautiful post! (And, perfectionist that I am, I'm finding it almost impossible to leave a comment because my comment couldn't possibly live up to the post!)(grin).

Consent of the Governed said...

It's funny you wrote this.. because I had been musing that in past years I always had the holidays well planned out - i was prepared - I tried to do everything "right". As I have aged it doesn't seem to matter much ..getting it right... because somehow getting it wrong doesn't mean it is less important to you.
This week - my mom went into hospice care - my dad died Tishri 4, 10 years ago. So God doesn't seem to want me to spend much time getting ready for the holidays anyway as I deal with stuff this week. I'll do what I can to get a filling meal in my family's stomach erev Yom Kippur, but I don't think I'll be spending a whole lot of time in shule as I'd rather be by my mother's bedside, and I think God would have it that way as well.

sigh - I think the whole purpose of the days of awe is to put life and our deeds into perspective. I think that is what I am doing at the moment anyway.

Magpie Ima said...

Truly a lovely post. There's much to think about here and I will revisit more than once, I'm sure. I am most definitely *not* a perfectionist but I've always aspired to be one. Maybe I'm OK the way I am.

ChristineMM said...

I really enjoyed this post. As you may know from reading my blog, I am a perfectionist too, and have been dealing with that all year long.

I really liked your analysis and also the word root discussion and how there is no word for perfectionism in Hebrew. I never knew that.

I am going to link to this article on my blog.

Have a great night.