My name is Kevin, and I am a perfectionist.
Some will read this and wonder why I seem to be boasting. Many people think that being a perfectionist is a good thing.
We certainly do not want errors to occur when, for instance, we are undergoing surgery. In some highly specialized activity, such as Olympic sports competitions, “perfect” performance is expected. But to define ourselves — our whole being — in terms of perfect performance? That’s a harmful thing.
In school, and even in my seminary education, I tended to equate my worth as a person with verifiable academic achievement — the verification coming through the grades I received.
When I decided to enter the seminary, I also decided to read the Bible — all the way through, in typical perfectionistic mode.
Because the Old Testament is much longer than the New Testament, I found myself particularly curious about the repeated descriptions, in those ancient Hebrew Scriptures, of people offering sacrifices to God. My reaction was that these people were quite backward to assume that the way to get God’s attention, and win his favor, was to slaughter livestock and burn it up.
Meanwhile, as I proceeded through seminary, I found myself unable to shore up my sense of self-worth, because I was not reaching “perfection” through grades. And I was miserable.
At one point, I found myself really listening to the Letter to the Hebrews at weekday Mass. A continuous reading occurs in odd-numbered years during January and early February.
Hebrews includes a discussion of animal sacrifices and how they were in a sense pointing toward the sacrifice of Jesus.
I had an insight. I had been judging people of old for being “backward” because they slaughtered and burned up animals. But wasn’t I doing the same thing — and to myself? Wasn’t I burning myself up through perfectionism in order to prove my worth before God?
The argument of the Letter to the Hebrews, especially at chapters 9 and 10 — that Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on behalf of all human beings is the thoroughly efficacious work for our salvation — was foundational for my conversion in accepting Jesus as the one who had indeed personally intervened in human affairs and had won salvation for me and for all of us.
Great peace followed. I could elaborate, but I think the thing I must express is that allowing myself to feel and appreciate this love was so good that I did not care about anyone’s standards of judgment.
Along the way, I came to understand that, when Jesus says, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), Jesus is not calling for perfect performance. He says this at the end of a discussion of love of enemies, which practically no one among us sinners ever aces. Jesus is telling us to be well-rounded, “whole” human beings who can love ourselves as we are, with our shortcomings, and thus become more loving and accepting of the people in our life.
And this is how — as I hinted at in my previous column — exposure to the Sacred Scriptures, especially within our eucharistic worship, has changed me.
I’m still a perfectionist; maybe I can say that I am a “recovering” perfectionist. When I write, I am still a fanatic about getting everything right. And this sort of perfectionism is essentially harmless, as long as I do not define myself in terms of performance, and as long as I let myself be loved.