The Idol of Perfectionism

Day 20 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.

Allegro Harp

Writing daily on the blog has produced it’s own set of challenges. It takes about 2 hours from start to publish for a post. With my intention of keeping the house free from internet, this has meant staying late at the office. But some days, it has meant (gasp) using my phone as a wifi hub. The limited data and speed means anything beyond posting is impossible, but it still breaks the intention of an internet-free Cottage.

Surrounded by and formed by a perfectionist culture, I used to believe that a practice not done perfectly was a failure, with all the feelings of incompetence and guilt piled on. However, if this were true, then learning a musical instrument would be impossible.

One of the 8 intentional items I first brought into my house was my harp.

In the late 90s, my parents gave me a Celtic harp for Christmas and I began to teach myself to play. While I played at church in the praise ensemble, not having a teacher put me at a disadvantage. Ultimately, with school and moving around the country a few times, playing the harp was forgotten.

Moving to Dubuque, the desire to start playing returned and I began looking for an instructor, to no avail. Then one Sunday evening, just before last Christmas, I decided to walk down to Mass at the Cathedral, just 5 minutes from my then apartment. As I entered the church, exquisitely played harp music filled the space. Making a beeline to the pew next to the harpist, I drank in the beauty. After Mass, I introduced myself and asked for lessons.

That was 9 months ago and the weekly lessons continue.

Crescendo Harp (new to the Cottage) – Minerva approves.

Perfectionism in practicing the harp has no place. In fact, the harp has taught me that mistakes, missed notes, and the mental struggle to read bass clef (slowly, so painfully slow!) is at the heart of good practice.

If I demand perfection when first learning a new fingering or song, I short-circuit the process. The drivenness to “get it right” gets in the way–my hands tense, become clawlike; the sound is constricted, choppy; good technique disappears; and confidence plummets, especially when playing for an audience.

I play better when I’m not trying to play better.

I play better when I am caught up in the joy of playing.

It is not an absence of control, but a relaxation of control into a sense of trust in my fingers, the music, the instrument, and the mystery of creative process.

This same drivenness can haunt spiritual practices. The desire to “get it right,” to practice perfectly, becomes the focus, rather than God.

Instead, we relax through the practice, trusting the Spirit, into awareness of God’s presence.

Setting an intention or writing a rule of prayer that describes our hopes for a season is an excellent practice, as long as the intention or rule is held lightly, in the grace of the Spirit. The mistakes, missteps, inconsistencies, are opportunities for renewed practice, a time for figuring things out, rather than getting stuck in feelings of failure and guilt.

Deliberate practice is a term used in the new field of expertise studies. Malcolm Gladwell has popularized some of the research when he talks about the 10000 hours required to become an expert. What is often left out of popular interpretations is that this practice is not random or rote, but deliberate. It zeros in on the mistakes, understands why they occurred and then works through them intentionally into incremental improvement and learning.

Rather than getting stuck by the idol of perfection, spiritual practice can be an icon inviting us into the wider reality of God: love, beauty, joy, and peace.

So, even in blogging about sanctuary practices, I’ve had to revisit the intentions I set for life at the Cottage and understand how to live within them. Practically, this has meant switching to morning posts, so as not be at the office late in the evening; working toward leaving the phone at the office more and more evenings; and being okay with (and honest about) the messiness of it all.

As you consider ways to cultivate sanctuary in your own life and home, where is perfectionism getting in the way? In your life with God, how does the idol of “getting it right” get in the way of relationship? In what way can your practices be icons inviting you into the joyful reality of relationship with God?