Letting go of perfectionism to chase perfection

Beauty abounds in a French patisserie and a humble home kitchen alike. The former boasts cakes and pastries meticulously crafted and adorned with the utmost detail. The latter offers irregularly shaped loaves of crusty bread and cookies generously — and unevenly — covered in sprinkles poured out by small, eager hands. As someone with perfectionist tendencies, I long would have argued that, though both are beautiful in their own right, the macarons of the French patisserie are far more perfect than the cutout sugar cookies of the home kitchen. Lately, though, the Lord has been whispering to me the truth of perfection.

Every perfectionist (and, here, I raise my hand) loves her plans fulfilled, goals met, to do lists neatly checked off. She loves straight lines and tidy rooms and a general sense of order. She craves control and predictability, all done “her way.” She strives for the achievement of some ideal that she, influenced by the world, has conceived. Life, so often tumultuous, churns about her and causes her to grip this helm of perfection all the more tightly. “If I but chart and sail the perfect course, I will, one day, arrive!” thinks the perfectionist. Arrive where, though? Certainly not the Promised Land. No, perfectionism — in the worldly sense — never guides one to the Promised Land, for worldly perfectionism is all too often (or, one may argue, always) antagonistic to true perfection — that is, the imitation of him who is perfect.

Letting go of the mess

What does imitation of the Perfect One entail? In a word, love — the more excellent way, as St. Paul says. And love very often means leaving things undone — leaving tasks unfinished, goals unmet, paths untraveled. It means setting aside the superficial, worldly perfection for being present to Perfection in the other.

Take, for instance, a father who sets aside his tools and his engrossing project to answer his son’s request for a game of catch before the sun goes down; or a young woman who foregoes the completion of graduate school to have and raise her baby; or the athlete who, about to set a personal record, stops along the racecourse to help an injured runner to the finish line. Dying to self and setting aside aspirations or inclinations to become Christ’s hands and feet: this is the more perfect way.

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This, the Lord has been asking of me: to leave things undone, to set things aside, to allow my path to be altered. And he has asked it gently, in the small moments. In a frenzy of tidying messes about my house — scattered blocks, open books, clothes and dishes — so that everything could be “perfect” for our dinner guests, the Lord reminded me that I was not loving. Yes, the shelves and countertops and floors might be in order, but I was not present to my children who just wanted Mama to play blocks with them or my husband who would have loved to have been greeted with a kiss when he walked in the door. I was not joyful or at peace. I was in no way imitating Christ and in no way allowing him to sanctify me. I was bulldozing my way to some strange, derived sense of perfection and blocking out all grace. The “perfection” I was seeking was just vanity — an attempt to make myself look like someone without flaws and sins (in a word, a god).

Instead, true perfection would have been presence to the souls around me, peaceful surrender of my desires of a “perfect” house, and joy at the prospect of getting to share a meal with family and friends — however imperfect things may have looked about us. True perfection glorifies the Lord, for it is a reflection of him — the one, true God — who is truly without blemish.

Chasing Christ

God is teaching me that it is better to let my plans and desires and preferences unravel so as to let in more love. Yes, how lovely it would be to create a “perfect” cake worthy of a French patisserie. But how much more perfect to cast aside my plans for a three-tiered beauty and, instead, make a cake with my daughter! To patiently allow her to scoop and measure, pour and mix, and gleefully exclaim as she haphazardly spreads frosting and tosses on sprinkles! It may not look perfect, but the love with which it was done is a far greater imitation of Christ.

At the end of the day, at the end of our lives, what is it worth if all appears perfect, but we have not loved? I’m starting to understand that perfection lies not in how flawless something is, but rather in how closely it draws one to the Lord. And if Our Lord, who is perfect, is Love, then is it not love alone that leads to perfection? If I am chasing perfection, I should be chasing Christ. If I am chasing Christ, then I am not worried about how well-planned my week is, how successful my life may seem, or even how organized my kitchen is. I am far more concerned with going to where he calls and choosing, in every moment, to forget myself so that I can love others. Perfectionism will not lead me to heaven, but Perfection himself will.

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