Another Week Ends

Perfectionism Pitfalls, Pandemic Apocalypses, God Interviews for a New Job, and Monkeys Hate the Law Too.

Todd Brewer / 8.27.21

1. Leading off this week is Josh Cohen’s near-perfect article in the Economist on “The Perfectionism Trap.” Adeptly discussing everything from parenting to plastic surgery, psychology, grief, careers, the pandemic, and religion (oh my!), the need for perfection infects every aspect of our lives. Which is another way of saying that the law is inescapable, and it kills us every time. The ideal we hold in our minds — in whatever form or context it occurs — creates a vicious cycle of striving, failure, and shame.

As lockdown began last spring, I felt I was beginning to see many of my patients let go of the perfectionist demands they had placed upon themselves. Institutions and businesses adapted to home working, and many people saw a lull in the workload, a break from the constant surveillance and an opportunity to recalibrate their priorities. […] But after about six weeks, I felt this new mood of indulgence wane and the old demands punitively re-emerge.

The reprieve from perfectionist zeal, followed by its remorseless return, made me think that perfectionism might be a deep-rooted and persistent element of the human condition. After all, the Bible begins with the fall from grace of divinely created beings into sin and mortality.

Some version of this origin story can be found across cultures. From this perspective, religion is an extravagant scheme for the recovery of our lost perfection, at least in its monotheistic variants.

But religion also has a contrary, or perhaps complementary, purpose. For centuries it was the primary means through which we came to terms with being fallen and flawed – imperfect, in short. Religious striving for moral and spiritual improvement goes in tandem with the sombre recognition that perfection belongs to God alone.

When mortals in the Bible or mythology, such as the architects of the Tower of Babel or Prometheus, attempt to usurp divine status, they are duly punished. In the religious imagination, the notion of human perfection is blasphemy. […]

In the absence of intrinsic feelings of worth, a perfectionist tends to measure her own value against external measures: academic record, athletic prowess, popularity, professional achievement. When she falls short of expectations, she feels shame and humiliation. […]

This weight of society’s expectations is hardly a new phenomenon but it has become particularly draining over recent decades, perhaps because expectations themselves are so multifarious and contradictory. Perfectionism is slippery. Clinically it is reflected in a dizzying range of symptoms: depression and anxiety, obsessional disorders, narcissism of the “thin-skinned” type (when a projected grandiosity conceals intense fragility), psychosomatic illness, suicidal thoughts, body dysmorphia and eating disorders. Perfectionism has a chameleonic ability to adapt itself to different character types and vulnerabilities, which is perhaps why it has never been categorised as a discrete mental disorder. […]

The difficulty of escaping the snares of perfectionism suggests that it has a place deep in the structure of the human psyche. However we are brought up we internalise an ideal of the person we aspire to be. […]

How might we protect this aspiration from the incursions of perfectionist zeal? There are no easy answers. Something about being human makes it difficult to feel that we have done, or are, enough. We are unwilling to extinguish the hope that, one day, we will be recognised as exceptional.

How might our inherent drive toward perfectionism end? Cohen thinks we need to grow up from our childish desire for parental approval. But what if there was a parent who was actually gracious? Cohen here at least gestures toward the beating heart of what we might call imputation, that we are loved as we are rather than for who we should be. Rather than striving for an elusive perfection that might make us acceptable to God, to him we are already enough.

2. If Cohen sees in his patients a return to normal, or an end to the grace period and the return of unyielding expectations, there remains the possibility that there might be something to be learned from our collective 18+ month, um, apocalypse. I don’t mean apocalypse in the Hollywood, end-of-the-world sense. An apocalypse is literally a “revelation,” an epiphany that offers newfound clarity. For Hannah Anderson in Christianity Today and Esau McCaulley in the New York Times, our collective brush with death has been an extended apocalypse, laying bare our misunderstandings and misshapen priorities. Here’s Anderson:

“The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short.” That’s how Oliver Burkeman begins his new book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for MortalsIn it, he confronts readers with the disquieting truth that we have a paltry 4,000 weeks on this earth, and a lot of what we do with them is meaningless, at least by some human standards.

As bleak as it sounds, that is exactly the message we need to hear right now. […] for those of us in the modern West (and perhaps America, in particular), mortality is a question we’ve found ingenious ways to avoid.

Consider how often we opt for efficiency. For many of us, “making the best use of our time” doesn’t mean living a purposeful life. It means getting as much done as possible. We multitask and hustle and pursue what Burkeman dubs “the fully optimized life.”  […]

Christians have not been immune to the gospel of productivity and progress. Some of us have been discipled to believe that if we just work hard enough, plan hard enough, and deny hard enough, we can escape suffering and futility. But Scripture (especially Ecclesiastes) reminds us that the gospel of progress and productivity is unequal to the realities of life. We live only 4,000 weeks, the majority of them spent on mundane tasks. We are weak, dependent creatures, desperate for the grace and mercy of God.

In this moment, we feel our dependence acutely, and that feeling is a gift. Because in this moment — this depressing, disturbing, terrible moment — we have a chance to learn the truth about ourselves and the lives we thought we wanted.

For his part, McCaulley believes the pandemic has provided the opportunity to recalibrate our vocational desires and priorities — the same hard lesson he learned after the unexpected death of his father.

[My father’s death] forced me to re-evaluate my career. Impressing other writers and academics ceased to be my goal. Instead, I would focus on using my words to find beauty and hope. I couldn’t write a different ending for my father’s story, but I could show that a different ending was possible for others. […]

We have had to consider our collective mortality. And we are now faced with the question of meaning. Like the biblical psalmist says, “We have escaped like a bird from the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped.” (Psalm 124:7). Covid-19 threatened to capture us in its snare, but thus far we have eluded it. What shall we do with this opportunity?

This opportunity made plain what may have been hidden. Maybe the sacrifices we make for our careers are not worth it. When we had the illusion of time, the lower pay, long commutes, high cost of living and separation from loved ones seemed a small price to pay for a successful career. But the pandemic reminded us that there are some things more important than vocational progress. […]

The pandemic has reminded us that life is more than what we do. It is about whom we spend our lives with. We cannot hug a career or laugh with a promotion. We are made for friendship, love and community.

When the New Testament writers looked back at the death of Jesus, they realized that nothing could (or should) be the same again. As tragic and as confounding as it was, something new had broken into the world whose light revealed the darkness. It was an apocalypse.

Though the pandemic is far from over, life “Before Covid” could just possibly be a kind of B.C. that gives way to an A.D. … That may be a blasphemously optimistic to say out loud, but after so much suffering and death, I often find myself asking if these dry bones can live.

3. For those, like McCaulley, who might be contemplating a shift in their vocational goals, Marian Bull offers something of a cautionary tale to anyone who dreams of turning their side hobby into a side hustle that might one day be a career. For her, that dream is a fairytale: she lost her hobby and gained a revenue stream. Doing what you love still means you have to work for the rest of your life. Bull works as a writer, but began to do pottery for fun — until it wasn’t.

My ceramic work, now, is caught up in the question of selling. Mugs sell, so I make more of them. I take a sick pleasure in the exhausting production line of throwing, trimming, attaching handles, smoothing everything down, painting, glazing, firing, staring at rows of cups lined up like synchronized swimmers, ready to jump. It’s the same sick pleasure I get in staying up until 2 am working on a jigsaw puzzle: maniacally focused on my goal at the expense of my posture. Untangling the question of what I want to make from what will sell feels like crawling out of a very deep well.

The swiftness with which modern craftspeople can and do monetize their hobbies is, of course, not a surprise. Traditional careers are crumbling, and side hustles are fetishized; Instagram has turned marketing into a basic skill we’re all expected to have. It’s easier to sell the crap you make in your spare time, and you’re more likely to need the money than you might have been a few decades ago, when you could have just foisted it all on your friends. This all risks turning hobbies into even more of an illusion, a mirage of leisure that quickly turns to obligation. […]

I can no longer call ceramics my hobby, and I doubt I ever will. I assume I will sell my work until people stop buying it, both out of necessity and because it does bring me joy to make a silly little thing that someone will incorporate into the tableau of their home. The struggle, for me, is between what I want to make and what I assume people will buy; the struggle of wishing I could log off forever but knowing that Instagram is the most direct marketing tool I have.

Bull’s experience, of course, isn’t unique. She makes pottery; I roast coffee. It is telling, however, that the way we might ascribe worth to our hobbies is by putting a dollar figure on it. There might be joy in the act of creation, but that pales in comparison with receiving something more tangible and, frankly, esteemed.

I wonder how Bull’s experience would have been different if she had instead opted to foist her pottery on her friends. Rather than commerce, the exchange would have been a gift. In the place of dollars, she would have received a smile, a “thank you,” and perhaps even a loving hug. We might say that trading money for love is foolish, but Etsy is big business. I looked up her website, btw. The mugs are cute.

4. Some A-list humor for you this week! Reductress’, “‘You’re So Mysterious,’ Says Man Who Has Never Asked You Anything” and the Onion‘s, “Defeated Man Too Tired To Fight New $14.99 Fee On Phone Bill” are both funny (and sad). If you want the perfect satire of 20-something Atheists, there’s “Sad! Atheism is Still This Guy’s Whole Thing

But I can’t stop laughing at McSweeney’s, After a Long Pandemic Layoff, God Interviews for a New Job“:

What happened with that project [the Garden of Eden]?
Oh, we had to take it offline after it ran into some problems caused by unanticipated user behavior. You know how it is, even when you give them the clearest instructions, they do the one thing that will crash the system. So, we ended up introducing sin into the world, along with suffering and labor pains for women, and we wrote off all the investment.

Describe a time you identified a problem and what you did to fix it.
Well, a bit later, after the Eden thing, I realized that the world was just filled with sin, so I impregnated a virgin and sent my deputy to turn things around.

So that fixed the issue? Sin was gone after that?
It’s a little more complicated than that. He brought about the Kingdom in people’s hearts and opened the way to salvation. Our market share went way up.

5. And finally, James K.A. Smith reviews the memoir Testimony, by Paul Kahn, and in the process offers some superb thoughts on faith and the counterintuitive nature of forgiveness. Kahn’s book tells the story of his parent’s marriage, of his father’s relentless abuse of his mother and his mother’s confession of a long undisclosed affair. But this story, for Smith, also doubles as “a parable of secularization.” Kahn has rejected the militant atheism of his father for a milder — almost Christian — atheism:

Kahn’s father—an atheist who, despite being a secular Jew, loathed religion — could be seen as a cautionary mirror for our cultural moment. He shows us what the world would look like if forgiveness were unthinkable: “an entirely secular person, he believed in justice, not forgiveness.”

Kahn himself does not want to live in such a world. He wants a world where love enables us to forgive, which is to say he wishes his father could have forgiven his mother. His father’s cosmos is bleak—without God, without grace, only the bare law of what one is owed as the measure of justice. Kahn accepts his father’s atheism, but you can sense his discomfort with what that seems to entail. He knows he wants love and forgiveness. Can we have that without faith? He looks almost longingly at the Christian hope of resurrection but then concludes: “Who can believe this today?” […]

Gently, I might suggest that Kahn is still too much his father’s son. At one point he admits: we moderns “live as Christians, wanting bodily immortality, but without belief.” He is resolute in refusing his father’s refusal of forgiveness. Why not consider refusing his atheism? Why should the limits of our imagination — what we find believable — be confused with the bounds of what could be true? Imagine a love stronger than death; imagine a God who is love; imagine your mother was right: we are living in a divine comedy in which the last word is love.

Strays:

After a brief summer hiatus, the Mockingcast is back! Look for their latest episode to drop soon.