A good friend of mine sent a short article to me. I had to laugh when I saw the opening line, because it means she knows me fairly well. The first line goes like this: “Are you a perfectionist? Or do you strive for excellence?” I felt like someone just peeked into my soul! I am sure that once upon a time I would have answered “yes” to both questions. Yes, I am a perfectionist. And yes, I am striving for excellence. It caused me to stop and ponder, which I think, is a very spiritual way of going about things.
I made some spiritual progress in my early pilgrimage when I realized I was a perfectionist. Being a perfectionist is not an awful thing; it is just an impossible thing. Even people who are very good cannot pull off the perfectionist hope. We are all too human to be perfect. So I was better off when I gave up that dream…which was actually an illusion. Giving up being a perfectionist does not necessarily make life easier. But it does make life possible!
I read on in the article. The article states that perfectionism and excellence is not the same thing. I had not really thought about it, but could agree. I liked how that article differentiated them. “Perfectionism is focused on ‘doing the ‘right,’ how things APPEAR, and if OTHERS think it’s done right.” That resonated with me. I acknowledge how important to a perfectionist it is what others think. Being a perfectionist for me meant pleasing others. Doing things “right” was paramount.
I would add that it is impossible to be truly who you are if you are a perfectionist. That person is always trying to be something that it is impossible to be. Normally you are trying to live up to some ideal standard. Often that standard is set by someone else. This was the important lesson I learned. When I gave up the perfectionist quest, then I could start to discover who I really was. This is what Thomas Merton and other writers on spirituality mean by the “true self.”
When I read what the article said about excellence, it again resonated with how I understand reality. “Excellence is about ‘doing the right thing.” It is focused on the REASON for a task, and the RESULTS for it to be a success.” When I read that excellence is about doing the right thing, it reminded me of the work I have done on the theme of character and integrity. Doing the right thing has to do with the virtues---or “values” in today’s language.
When I think about the spiritual giants in history---Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, and others---they would all have been people aiming at this kind of excellence. They wanted to do the right thing. They focused on the reason for their task. It might be a huge task like inaugurating the kingdom of heaven! Or it might be a lesser task (but no less important), like healing a local woman of her illness.
I recognize that excellence is appropriate for all of us who are not spiritual giants. However, I realize that I feel somewhat shy when it comes to claiming excellence for myself. It is probably because I see excellence to be such a high standard; only super-human folks can reach that. In our own culture excellence gets associated with super-athletes or a musical protégé. For average people, excellence is a bit unnerving.
To link excellence with the spiritual seems even more unthinkable. But then, I realized that I needed to consider it, especially in light of the definition being used here. It makes perfect sense to understand spiritual excellence as doing the right thing. In this sense excellence is not reserved for the elite. It is appropriate for you and me to aspire to this kind of spiritual excellence: to do the right thing.
Additionally, it seems perfectly appropriate for all of us ordinary folks to aspire to spiritual excellence when it comes to focusing on the reason for the task. Let’s assume my spiritual task is to know and do the will of God. The reason for doing this task is so that I can lend a hand to the building of the kingdom that Jesus began. I understand myself as a co-worker in this kingdom-building. I hope you join me, too.
In this light it is admirable to aspire to spiritual excellence. It will not lead to pride or some form of egocentrism. I am sure that perfectionism does set one up for egocentric temptations and the ensuing trials. Perfectionism sets us up for the pride that comes from near successes. And it also bombs us with the inevitable impossibilities and ensuring despair that comes with failure.
In almost every way I am surprised that I come out with a determination to go for spiritual excellence. The adjective, “spiritual,” is key here. If it is spiritual excellence, then the spotlight shines on the right thing to do and the task set before us. The task is to be involved in God’s work and that is the right thing to do. I hope I can become spiritually excellent in the process.