Believe it or not, there is some illusory glamor attached to being a perfectionist. That’s why I misdiagnosed myself as one for many years.
You see, despite the misery and exhaustion that can accompany perfectionism, our culture nevertheless still whispers to us that its sufferers have enviable motivations. Perfectionists have high standards. And nature has bestowed upon them the ability to give sustained and meticulous attention to detail. Those perfectionists might be a dysfunctional bunch, but they sure are productive and successful.
As the readers of Brene Brown can tell you, the drive toward perfection will make a mess of your inner life and a train wreck of your relationships. And yet, calling yourself a perfectionist is the sort of thing you can safely say when a prospective employer asks you about your weaknesses. You know, it’s one of those secretly acknowledged strengths that you can toss out as a shortcoming during a job interview. You want to get things right so much that you’ll even sacrifice yourself for the firm.
Look, I’m not saying that being a perfectionist is a healthy thing. As Brene says, we’re much better off when we can say that we are enough just as we are. Still, calling myself a perfectionist felt a lot more acceptable than what I now confess about myself.
I’m a recovering atychiphobe. For much of my earlier life, the fear of failure—atychiphobia—drove me. Or froze me in my tracks. Or led me to set my sights too low. Or just told me not to try.
Okay, I admit, no psychiatrist would have given me a clinical diagnosis. My fear of failure was at the high end of the garden variety dread that many of us in the West wrestle with. That’s because we associate our self-worth with achievement. We assign value to ourselves and to each other on the basis of the results we produce.
No wonder so many people fear failure. It represents rejection and humiliation. Your results make you somebody or reduce you to nobody status. At least, that’s the myth that holds many of us captive: the world is populated by winners and losers, and your results determine which team you belong to.
For the most part, I do not fear failure anymore. In fact, some people wish I were a little more risk averse. But failure no longer holds the power over me it once did because neither do results. I’ve found another way to live. Or, more accurately, it has found me. Jesus suggested this way in the Parable of the Sower. It goes like this:
A sower went out to sow. The results were mixed. Some seed took root in fertile soil. The rest of the seeds landed on rocky ground, withered in shallow dirt, or were choked by weeds.
But remember, this is the Parable of the Sower. Not the Parable of the Seeds. Nor the Parable of the Soil. Nope. It’s a parable about a sower. And the sower did what sowers do. They sow. They don’t stress about the results. They bring the Kingdom by embodying the Kingdom wherever they are. And that is an inherently valuable way to be.
Even though he was not commenting on this parable, I think the following passage from Thomas Merton illuminates its core message:
“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.” (Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love, p. 294)
Embodying the Kingdom means to walk the way of love. When you love, it will transform some people’s lives and mend some circumstances. But not always. Not every time. Sometimes your love will be scorned and rejected, betrayed and crucified.
On the cross, Jesus joined us in the ultimate powerlessness of our merely human love. And he showed us how to entrust love’s result to God. To trust that God’s love is the power to bring even life out of death. The power of resurrection.
Along Jesus’ way of love, the meaning of failure is transformed. The way of love is the way of the cross. And as it turns out, that’s the path that leads to resurrection.