I just drove my new car over (not into, over) a three foot wall in a parking lot. I was taking my Korean exchange student to his first driving lesson. There’s a certain irony there. We’re fine (though I now know what his “surprised” face looks like) the car is fine (Toyota, can’t beat ‘em) and the wall can be fixed (mason already on call).
As soon as I left my hapless protégé in the driving school, I called my husband and burst into tears. That done, tears dried, and husband notified, I called my friend Judy, whose down to earth perspective always centers me.
“You know,” she said “your guardian angel was working overtime. Don’t forget to pray a rosary of thanksgiving.” Good thought, you bet, I’ll get right on it. “And,” she continued, “You know the reason you feel so bad is that mistakes aren’t allowed in your life.”
Does she have to be so smart?
I am tempted to argue that my perfectionism is a result of so many years in a profession in which the standard really is perfection. If you’re reading slides to diagnose a patient’s illness, there’s very little room for error and the consequences can be horrible. I can remember with awful clarity the times that I know my lack of skill in diagnosis cost a patient something—one his stomach and esophagus, another his tongue and part of his jaw and neck. I remember the people I autopsied who died because someone else, doctor or not, made a mistake that cost a life. I give thanks for the ones I don’t know about. The ones I do know about still wake me up in the small hours of the night.
The reality is, I am not a perfectionist because I am a pathologist, I am a pathologist because I am a perfectionist. I’ve turned a serious spiritual failing into a career. Like it or not , and most of the time I do, perfectionism is the way I relate to the world. Even my boss at work has been known to counsel me to “grant myself some grace” when she perceives that I am being too hard on myself. I persist none the less in believing that if I just work hard enough, long enough, focused enough I will eventually get “it” “right.”
Of course, I have no earthly idea what “it” really is or what “right” really looks like most of the time, but I rarely let that stop me.
I think there’s a part of me, that perfectionist part, that keeps looking for personal perfection not because it’s such a good thing in itself, but because it means that I would be totally and completely self reliant. It’s that ancient sin of pride, of self, of place, that tries to rob me of what defines life. I live as a broken person in a broken world. I have to move the intellectual knowledge that I can’t be perfect into some sort of spiritual acceptance of that fact before I can ever hope to open myself to grace.
If I never make mistakes, I’ll see myself as far better than I am, and others as far worse than they are.
If I never make mistakes, I never have to accept help from others. If I never have to accept help from others, I cannot relate to Christ in my fellow man. If I cannot see Him in those around me, how can I hope to relate to Him at all?
If I never make mistakes, I’ll never need a Redeemer.
And, of course, perfectionist though I am, there’s still plenty of sin in my life that I need to see, need to respond to, need a Redeemer for—but I am too busy trying to be perfect to even notice. There’s irony in that, kind of like cruising over a wall on the way to a driving lesson.
So, for the rest of Lent, I’m going to be giving thanks for a husband who did not laugh when I told him what happened and a good friend with a clear head who did. I’m going to give thanks that I know I am not perfect, and try to let those imperfections lead me closer to grace instead of insisting on trying to fix them all by myself. I’m going to pray that I can see those imperfections more clearly and invite God in to take care of them. I’m going to laugh at myself. I am going to stimulate the economy with car- and wall- repair bills. I may even try out for a part-time job as a stunt driver.
And I am going to look forward to Good Friday, when creation’s burden of mistakes cost a Life and not all the perfectionism in the world prevented it.