Perfection Imperfect

by | Sep 7, 2015 | 4 Hunger & Thirst

9hkG6Q8ZigoBlessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6).
As we send our freshmen to college, we bid them enjoy the best years of their lives.  Meanwhile, college counselors like me face ever growing demand and increasing severity and incidence of student mental health problems. Why all the breakdowns in paradise?
In a New York Times piece, “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection,”[1] Judy Scelfo offers a diagnosis.  Students read parental, economic, and social standards to mean they must produce transcripts and resumes that slam dunk their career success or consign themselves to a permanent place on the bench.  One bad grade will lead to grad school rejection then unemployment then utter humiliation.  Any flaw can defeat them.  So they must be perfect.
To compensate, they never show vulnerability, hiding normal human sadness and stress under a veneer of perfection.  A 2003 study of Duke University women concluded that they strive to appear “effortlessly perfect,” and at Penn, they call the visage of unshakeable ease and cheer, “Penn Face.” Other people’s Facebook personae emanate sexiness and success.  Amid such masks, you wouldn’t know if anyone else hurts.  So if you do, you feel like the only one, resulting in a smiling loneliness epidemic.
At the Counseling Center, we see anxiety over stress, guilt over depression, and shame over self-confidence lapses.  In normal emotional pain, one feels it with self-respect.  In pathological emotional pain, one suffers anguish about the pain itself.  Pain over pain multiplies geometrically.  Panic attacks follow from fearing fear.  Some cut themselves to shift focus from emotional escalation to simpler physical pain.
All in the name of perfection.  Who needs it?  Nobody.  After all, perfection doesn’t exist.  Plato sold the western mind the illusion that perfection undergirds reality despite its apparent imperfections.  But I believe our drive for perfection arises not from a noble quest for truth but from our unlimited capacity to imagine greener pastures.  We restlessly struggle to attain a more excellent self and more perfect life.  If we did, we’d be like God.  Right, Adam?  Eve?
Actually, we wouldn’t.  Plato’s perfect god did not love.  Our righteous God does.  Scripture’s God loves us relentlessly, steadfastly, slow to anger, astonishing in mercy.  That adds up to righteousness while God’s forgiveness knocks the scales of order out of whack, far from perfect.  Little wonder Plato and his student, Aristotle, forbade their perfect god from giving us mortals a moment’s thought, much less forgiveness.
Meanwhile, scripture’s God creates us in a divine image which shows in love’s messy give and take with no ledgers or scorecards.  So we violate ourselves by settling for love substitutes.  Perfection is one such substitute by which we try to make ourselves lovable.  Who was the last person you loved because they were perfect?
Pray for the beautiful young people who visit the Counseling Center on their way out from under the perfection illusion.  They hunger and thirst not for the perfection they think they want but for love greater than they can imagine getting.  Little do they know they already possess it.
[1] Judy Scelfo, “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection, ” New York Times, July 27, 2015.  Many thanks to my colleague, Terri Cordle, for sharing this article with me and for many good discussions of the effects of perfectionism on the students we serve.


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