No two created beings are exactly alike. And their individuality is no imperfection. On the contrary, the perfection of each created thing is not merely in its conformity to an abstract type but in its own individual identify with itself. This particular tree will give glory to God by spreading out its roots in the earth and raising its branches into the air and the light in a way that no other tree before or after it ever did or will do.”—Thomas Merton, Seeds of New Contemplation
I didn’t expect a cloistered monk like Thomas Merton to concern himself with the dangers of perfectionism. However, there’s some comfort in knowing that the feeling of not being good enough is apparently a widespread condition worthy of spiritual teaching.
It’s such a temptation to compare ourselves with others. In school, we’re graded on a curve to limit how many A’s are awarded. At work, we’re ranked against our co-workers to determine who gets the best raise. And even when we do something on our own, we find a way to compare our results. When I write, I have to consciously silence the voice in my head that tells me it’s all been said before by better writers than myself. It seems that comparison is endemic to our culture. So, it’s not surprising that many of us have a tendency towards perfectionism (or at least the desire to be marginally more perfect than the other people in our class/profession/neighborhood).
But we can take comfort in Merton’s words reminding us that God created us to be unique individuals. Our perfection is in our individual identity, not how well we conform to some abstract type.
When I think about the people I love, I clearly see this truth. I don’t love them because they are some abstract ideal of a human being (endlessly patient, unfailingly kind, strikingly attractive, eternally optimistic, etc.). I love what is unique about them; I love their individuality. And ironically, I love them even for what they consider their flaws.
Merton’s analogy of trees is a beautiful example of this concept. The trees that I notice aren’t necessarily the perfect specimens. Instead, I appreciate the trees that stand out from the rest in some way. I admire a tree that is asymmetric and twisted because it had to grow in a unique way to survive in its setting. It had to struggle to find sunlight, reach enough soil for its roots, or develop the strength to resist a constant wind. And so it adapted and grew into its own particular form. This tree not only gives glory to God in its unique fashion, but because it’s not just another pretty tree, it inspires me with its strength, perseverance, and adaptability.
I feel the same way about people. As we age, we become more interesting. This happens without us specifically trying and requires no products to purchase or exotic adventures to experience. We don’t get older without surviving some hard times and going through our own particular struggles. Like trees, our ways of surviving and persevering make us unique and precious. We each have our own life stories and lessons we’ve learned. We aren’t likely to be the perfect versions of ourselves that we aspired to be decades ago. Instead, we’ve learned that life is hard and everyone experiences suffering along the way, so now there is beauty in our brokenness and softness in our compassion.
A Closing Prayer
Giver of all good things, bless all of our unique brokenness. When we feel bent over by the weight of our responsibilities, struggles, and anxieties, remind us that we don’t have to be anyone other than who we are. We are not measured against some standard of perfection. We are loved. We are precious. We are beautiful in our uniqueness and have our own particular gifts to bring to the world. When we are searching for light to sustain us, help us feel Your presence in everything and everyone around us. When we feel alone, give us the courage to risk being vulnerable and reach out to make new connections. Open our eyes to see opportunities to share our stories, experiences, and hard-won compassion and help us make a positive difference in someone’s life. Amen.