Perfecktion Not Required

The Rev. Jeanne Lloyd, Minister

November 13, 2011

“Perfecktion Not Required”

It is likely that many of you do not know the story of my journey toward being ordained by UUSE in 2006.  It certainly would never have happened if I hadn’t met my husband and his family, who are life-long Unitarian Universalists.  It would never have happened if I hadn’t learned how to control this concept of perfectionism in my life.

I was raised in the Army.  With that experience comes certain expectations, not the least of which is to “do your best” and “never let the team (or unit) down.”  These are concepts deeply rooted in a survival instinct that is so necessary when people’s lives are threatened.  But, it also became part of my mantra when moving from school to school, usually at least once a year.  “Do your best” and “never let people down.”  Very often people, who have a strong desire to do things “just right” are drawing on a deeply internalized survival instinct, it is something they learned at an early age, that made it possible for life to go just a bit easier, if they did things the “right” way, and didn’t let others (perhaps parents, friends or teachers) down.

As I grew up, I was a pretty good student, though certainly gaps in my education occurred as I moved from one school to another.  And, I wasn’t so perfect, as I certainly gave my parents fits, as I moved into my teenage rebellion stage.  I also got married the first time at the age of 19, looking for love and my identity in all the wrong places.

My undergraduate college years at Virginia Tech were focused on experimental psychology, and I have a few research papers published from those days.  Those were the days of B.F. Skinner, Operant Conditioning and Cognitive Dissonance.  Does anyone remember those topics?  Those were the days of doing various experiments with white rats and human subjects.  The rats were in cages, the humans were not.  One of the lessons I learned back then was about “learned helplessness.”  I want you to imagine for a moment the elements of a very famous experiment that sketched out this idea of “learned helplessness”.  Imagine a dog in a cage, divided by a small wall.  Initially, the dog receives a treat if he performs correctly on one side of the cage.  But, if he goes to the other side of the cage, he is given a mild electric shock.   Thus, he learns to stay on one side of the cage.  However, taking it to the next level, the experimenters begin to shock the dog on both sides of the cage.  So that, no matter where he jumps, he cannot find safety.  In time, what happens is that the dog becomes paralyzed with fear.  He can neither go one direction nor the other.  He can do nothing “right.”   Trust me, if he could have figured out the “right” thing to do, he would of, and from there he would have developed a strong survival instinct to always do the right thing, to always be “perfect.”

I’m not particularly happy to remember this experiment and its cruelty to animals.  But, it is food for thought as we think about what might drive perfectionism.

My life was not so dramatic, but none the less there was that strong survival instinct to do what appeared to be ‘right.’  But, in whose judgment?  As a child, we rarely have the innate moral capacity to figure out what is “right.”  Instead, we are told what is right by adults, teachers, siblings, our peers, the media, religious leaders, and others.  We are told by a whole constellation of many people what they each believe is the “right” way that we should be.  And, most often, each person believes that their perspective is the right one, above all others, the ultimate toward which each of us should strive. All this direction is difficult for people who are still finding themselves, to resist.  And, yet, so many different opinions of the right way to be can overwhelm the individual’s own sense of self, and create in them the desire to be perfect to all people.

After completing my Master’s in Clinical Psychology, I ended up teaching psychometrics, research methods, abnormal and child psychology at the University of Maine in Bangor.  Graduate training had helped me understand that there are a variety of ways to look at a human being, and by and large, each of these evaluation methods has its limitations in terms of statistical reliability and validity.  Ironically, in later years, when I was pursuing my Master’s in Divinity, one of the requirements of that process was to take a variety of psychological tests including intelligence and personality tests such as the MMPI and Myers-Briggs, in an effort to hone in on whether I was “right enough,” “good enough,” “smart enough,” “sane enough” to be a Unitarian Universalist minister to our congregations.  Even though I had some skepticism about whether there could in fact be a “right” way to behave, these various experiences did nothing to calm the notion that one must always do their best and never let anyone down.  It proved to be a hard and ultimately Self-defeating path to walk.

And, then, there was a moment of epiphany, as there would be others on my path in life.  My development as a minister was somewhat different from others when it came to my internship.  Most ministers have their internship in one church for a year or two.  Mine was at the District level, working with all the congregations in the district.  Instead of preaching in one congregation all the time, I had to preach in several of our 66 congregations across the district.  Each different in their ways of being, their people, their histories, their structure, their degree of hospitality, the location of their pulpit, the music, and so forth.  The experience mirrored very well my childhood, moving to different places.  (And, I always prided myself on landing on my feet and thriving on chaos.  But, then that’s a different coping mechanism, we’ll not talk about today. J )

In order to meet Harvard degree requirements, I needed each congregation to evaluate the Worship Service I delivered to them.  To do that, I would speak with the worship coordinator several weeks before my preaching date, send them the evaluation form ahead of time, and ask to meet with the Worship Service committee after the service for feedback.  Most times, this all went very well.  But, there was this one time where it didn’t and because it didn’t, because all was not perfect, it changed my whole perspective on life, and thereby the course of my life.  On a particular Sunday I was scheduled to preach, I saw the Worship coordinator only then just copying the evaluation forms at the copier as I was walking in the door.  I then saw her handing the forms to members of the Worship committee as they came in the door.  They were surprised.  They did not expect this assignment.  They came to the service that day to fill their heart or mind with something inspiring or something comforting.  Instead they were given homework to complete during the service.

Now, as I was preparing for the service, a member came forward to ask if I knew where the chalice was?  I did not.  They spent time looking for it.  The clock was ticking past when we should have started the service.  Members who were also musicians of that congregation, were scheduled to play the prelude . . . but they were late.  The clock was ticking.  Once they arrived, I took a breath, and proceeded with my part of the service.  I moved through it as best I could.  At the end, after it was all over, I was handed 5 sealed envelopes, with each person’s evaluation in it.  There was no Worship Committee feedback meeting planned.  No opportunity for dialogue.  No opportunity to learn and reflect with them.  Later, I opened the envelopes  . . .   At first I was confused by their responses.  The comments ranged from such accolades as, “you’ve changed my life,” to “boring” to “anger” because I had started the service late.  I was speechless.  There was no consistency between these comments.  I couldn’t find a common theme.  And, then it hit me.

Remembering the basics of how experiments are conducted, I realized that I was the one constant in the sermons they heard that morning.  I was one person.  I had not presented 5 different services that day.  Instead, each person who evaluated me had come to the service with different expectations, different pressures, different baggage, different personalities.  Each person, was by themselves, their own independent variable effecting their own perception of what they had gotten out of the service.  And, in that moment, I realized I had no control over what people bring to a service.  I could not know what they all wanted.  And, the only thing I could do, was to speak my own truth, from my own heart and mind.  They might disagree with whether my truth resonated for them, but if I spoke my truth, they could not deny that it was my truth.  It is from the idea of speaking one’s own truth with love that the concept of “freedom of the pulpit” comes.

And, that’s what I try to do each Sunday, when I share my thoughts and perspectives with my congregation.  I try to share, as authentically as I can, what I believe to be true for me, based on my own experiences and learnings.  It may not be true for you, your perceptions are different.  But, it is true for me.

Ministers, Presidents, Heroes, Leaders, and even Moms and Dads and children are often judged by how they have failed to meet the expectations of others.  Do you sometimes feel the pulling and strain that goes on when trying to meet other’s expectations?  All these expectations coming from a variety of sources, cannot be met.  Many of you know this truth, but some do not.  It cannot be done.

There is a time and place to “do your best” and “to not let people down,” and there is a time and place to set those expectations aside and to take care of yourself.  Neither way of being is the right way of being all the time.  There are times when doing less than your best results in catastrophic consequences.  But, these occasions are rarely all the time.  When less than perfection is OK (as it often is), it is important that we let go of this survival instinct that has served us so well, and focus in on a different survival instinct, that is to take care of ourselves in ways that nurture the spirit and gives it resilience.

Perfection is not required.  Perfection is fragile and unforgiving.  Let’s face it.  We all have baggage.  It may be heavy or light.  But we all travel with it.  What is needed is transparency so that we can be our most authentic selves to one another, just as we are.

So, when you saw the title for this sermon, how many of you wanted more than a little to correct the spelling or the grammar?  “Perfecktion Not Required.”  It’s natural.  Most of us sort for the negative.  We sort for what is different from our expectation.  When we see something that is different from our own expectation, we want to correct it.  We want to make it right.  And, in the process, if that something is a person, we may give the message that there is only one “right” way to be.

Too late, we learn that when a survival instinct to please everyone all the time takes over our whole lives, then that instinct is living our lives for us; and we have lost the very control over our own lives that we sought.  There are times when it is important to do our best, and help one another.  And, there are times that it is important to let go of that expectation.

What is unique about this faith tradition is that it doesn’t tell us what to believe, and when we are wrong or right.  What it tells us to do is: to work together, to try to keep our promises to one another, to work toward our highest aspirations, to create space for people to be themselves, so long as they do not cause harm to themselves or others.  It is a very delicate balance, but one which allows each person to find their own truth, and determine for themselves where and when it is important to live by their own expectations.

And, here is the delight of our faith, that in which I take the greatest comfort.  When I can speak my truth, respectfully, to you, and you can speak your truth respectfully, to me, I will learn from you.  You may learn from me.  And, by that process, we can be changed, often for the better by the other, or at least acknowledge the other’s right to their own true beliefs.  Isn’t this what “respect for the inherent worth and dignity of each other” truly means?    Isn’t this what each of us is called to do in good times and times of struggle?  To create space for people to grow themselves into the people they wish to be? To allow them to make mistakes, as they grow?  To invite them back into relationship after they’ve made those mistakes?  To listen so intently, so carefully, so compassionately, that we may learn from the other?  This is, what I believe it means to hold in high regard the inherent worth and dignity of another.  This is my truth that I share with you.  It is up to you to decide whether it is a truth that makes sense to you.

Either way, perfection is not required here.  Love, honesty, authenticity, self-reflection, compassion, acceptance, transparency, good deeds:  these things we strive for so that each of us may find our own truth.

So may it be.