Perfect Humanity: An Account; or, Fear, Faith and Self-Acceptance (...ew.)

By Audrey Fox 06/28/16

Perfectionism, my chief character defect, is a beautiful beast whose utility I’ve prayed be removed throughout my recovery.

Perfect and lovable self. Perfect and lovable self.

When I was a child I had the worldview of a child—distilled from half-informed observation and early inferences. And this childish worldview read life as formulaic: do well in school, do well in sports, do well in life equals be known, be liked, be loved. 

But you are worthy. Worthiness does not mean perfection. You will never be perfect. If you were perfect, you wouldn’t be a person. 

I pored over books about famous athletes and other exceptional people. The hallmarks of each seemed to be reducible to patterned principles, predominated by drive, discipline and devotion. Through consistent and focused precision I came to believe I too could master anything—applied not only to sport but to every other life area as well. A young realist, though, I started small. In a manner retrospectively reflective of possible obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I would practice repetitively—from soccer and basketball, to mathematics and etymology. Technical skills and advanced maneuvers carried into rapid-fire math showdowns and honors spelling bees. If I dribbled three times with my left foot I’d have to do the same with my right; if I was shooting, I’d have to make consecutive reps in perfect sets or start from nil. I practiced my handwriting constantly in the name of perfect penmanship, and prided myself on the ability to solve complicated equations with speed and accuracy—and I was certain all of this would amalgam and amount to a perfect and lovable self. 

But you are worthy. Worthiness does not mean perfection. You will never be perfect. If you were perfect, you wouldn’t be a person. And being a person is what makes us lovable. Perfection is untouchable, irritating. You can’t get close to, really know or connect with a “perfect” person. Think of the last seemingly perfect person you met. You probably wanted to hit them in the throat, muss their hair and make them cry. Because there’s nothing for you two to talk about when you’re so busy comparing, sizing yourself up against, and ultimately determining that you are not as good. 

While the evolution of my scrawl hasn’t charted parallel revolutions in my social groups, the eventual realization that I could not please everyone or perfect everything did order up an opposite swing. I drudged my most oppositional and underground characteristics to throw them in the face of anyone I perceived to reductively categorize or underestimate me. (My perception of these two things was so askew, however, that I invariably did this to everyone in a most tone-deaf and inappropriate manner.)

Then I turned 19 and everything got better, said no one ever. Fumbling through the remaining year of teenaged angst that ungraciously invited itself to bleed through my early 20s, I began to smooth some of my rougher edges, and floated along with the grace and dignity of a dump truck. Despite my self-assuredness that I was improving—though in a deluded estimation far more generous than reality—a nagging notion continually tugged me into self-doubt and the looping cycle of preemptive adjustment. 

As an overly sensitive alcoholic, the slightest social cue—of discomfort, dislike, distaste—could launch me into endless internal review of every word said and move made, in hopes of identifying a potential wrong turn. In fits of presumption predicated upon likely specious suppositions, I began to formulate my special rules: a series of self-edits splicing together those elements that seemed most well received by the most people in the most important settings. They’ve since been subject to serious step work, chiefly responsible for poking enough holes in my perfectionism to allow this person to breathe. 

The trouble with all of this, beyond the obvious, became that many of my perfectionistic tendencies served me, as did (and do) many of my character defects. My first sponsor always (half) jokingly asserted that she preferred they be termed “index of maladjustments,” and that seemed a softer-sounding alternative. Regardless of the label, however, the sticking point tends to lie in their overdevelopment and use for good or other, as it were. Myriad character defects may well be assets when channeled toward positive ends through sober means; their negative interplay in our self- and other-centric relationships, however, prove a distinguishing factor in their definitive categorization. 

Perfectionism, my chief character defect, is a beautiful beast whose utility I’ve prayed be removed throughout my recovery. Its punctuated benefits key into my childhood worldview, and excuse continuation of that unhealthy extremist mindset—as a whitewashed means for good—nay, great. No, perfect. 

Recently I’ve been gifted a number of spiritual lessons, if not courtesy of my Higher Power, then at least observed by its infinite humor and benevolent voyeurism. One such lesson involved the removal of this defect’s primary utility as pertained to my outward appearance and now, with imperfection splayed across my face, prominently emblazoned in scars on my body and rashes across my cheeks, I have to confront this imperfect humanity and embrace it in a very literal and present way, daily. No longer is skirting difficult inquiry with flirtation and appearance an option; the inquiry hits harder, clears the top layer, straight into the middle. This upending has necessitated an internal examination I’d likely never have made without a forced hand, utility figuratively removed or otherwise. 

But you are as good. You are equally good. What’s that Steinbeck quote? “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” 

Pema Chödrön, the American, Tibetan Buddhist aunt most recovering persons wish they had in their contact list, penned the following non-Intergroup-approved bit demanding similar inquiry: 

“Right now can you make an unconditional relationship with yourself? Just at the height you are? The weight that you are, with the intelligence that you have, and your current burden of pain? Can you enter into an unconditional relationship with that?” 

And usually that’s a hard “no,” Peems. My personal relationship with myself had so long been contingent upon physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual leveling-up—a promotion, some breakthrough, public measure of achievement and recognition, more defined quads. The idea of unconditional self-love was one that I’d heard discussed in meetings but frequently recoiled from as a prettied-up rephrasing of settling or laziness. And yet it’s this notion of unconditional self-love that cancels out perfectionism—both polarized and incapable of coexistence—clearing the way to a life of faith. 

Long have we heard the dichotomous choice presented as: you can live in fear or you can live in faith. Yet, at a meeting a few months back, the qualifying speaker asserted that we could either live in fear or curiosity. Never before had I heard faith equated with curiosity so much as a calm sort of knowing, with the resting expression of a mediocre novelist’s book jacket photo. Similarly, I hadn’t consciously associated perfectionism with fear, far favoring its ties with excellence or pride in performance. And yet, I now see quite clearly how perfectionism—fear-based, insular—prohibits expansive, faith-based living. 

Over-assertion of control—that which I’d been most certain would ensure a forward path and personal happiness—rather than reliance upon God, constricted my level of freedom so as to be laughably mistaken for paying one’s dues or the daily grind, less spiritual dilemma than temporary delay. 

It was this unrest, this fear, which bred only discontent and distance from God in self-reliant ego gratification, deepening the spiritual void with each congratulatory achievement. And therein lies the paradox: that even if perfection is ostensibly achieved, or fear produces material gain, there is neither rest in, nor enjoyment of, either. There is great unrest in perfection’s pursuit, and as often discussed, that profound freedom in surrender significant enough to commence and sustain countless recoveries. 

We are not bad people getting good or imperfect people getting perfect—we are sick people getting well. I have never met a person who truly regretted solely focusing upon getting well. Maybe during the process—yes, the process is halting and stilted and messy and painful—but never after the fact. So you, you good-hearted, big-brained sober person? You need to be patient with you, and take care of yourself with the same patience and fastidiousness that you would invest in the person you love most in the world. Whomsoever that may be, I guarantee that, were they to speak to themselves the way that you speak to yourself, to appraise their progress by the same impossible standard of perfection, you would not hesitate in unreservedly assuring them of their worth, their goodness. Borrow that. Get on your team. It’s a good team to be on. 

A dear friend once told me that she felt broken—on review, nearly all of my friends, meeting fellows, former clients and practical strangers have told me at one point or another that they think they’re broken, too. And those are only the people who’ve admitted it! So if all of us are broken together, then none of us are really broken at all. Instead aren’t we all just human together, precluding the possibility of perfection outright? If perfection prescribes impeccable and unfailing functionality at all levels and at all times, then there could be no such thing as a perfect person. A person would have to be entirely divorced of their personhood in order to attain perfection—and if that weren’t impossible, at the very least it would be rather boring. 

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