The Perfectionist

13 December 2021

‘Don’t, out of vanity or sycophancy, insist on having your own way, quarrelling with and tormenting yourselves and your neighbor, just so that, afterwards, you can hear people saying that nobody can beat you’ (Abba Dorotheos)

There are two ways of carrying out a task: with diligence which borders on perfectionism or with casualness, the ‘whatever’ approach. This is also true in human relationships. There are those who strive hard as regards love: they pore over the details, they want to please others in all things; they put their best foot forward, precisely because they assign the greatest importance to love.  And there are also those who don’t take relationships seriously. They just want to get by and their only concern is themselves. They don’t want to make any effort. Heaven forfend that two people with such different outlooks should meet: the perfectionist and the slacker who couldn’t care less. Permanent grumbling, frustration and bickering would be the result.

Perfectionism reveals an obvious or hidden form of egotism. Perfectionists don’t want to lose. They believe in themselves and in their way of doing things, they believe that their plans, choices and efforts cannot be faulted or, if they can, that they’ll be able to correct them. Within themselves, they have an open or hidden demand: that their labors should be recognized. Is this fair? From one point of view, yes. As people, we envy, disregard or don’t understand the efforts of others, and sometimes we aren’t even interested in whether they love us, provided they serve our interests. And so we don’t feel the need to enter into the process of recognizing the justice of the effort and therefore the requirement to thank somebody. Though we’re perfectly prepared to ‘sell them out’ or ‘drop them’ when we’ve achieved our aim.

And the perfectionist who doesn’t want to lose? It’s an important lesson that other people are free. For each of us to accept that we don’t need to invest in the recognition of others in order to do what we do best, especially if this is for the good. We should have patience with the muddles other people get themselves into. We can point out what’s good and what isn’t; what they might do to improve the situation; but not bully them. We should strive not to foster bad thoughts about them just because they aren’t the way we’d like them to be.

In the spiritual life, love is accompanied by discretion. If we’ve chosen the path of kindness, we need to proceed along it with forgiveness for what we might lose despite our best efforts. God doesn’t use the worldly measures of reward to weigh the works we do before him. Neither should we when it comes to other people. Insofar as we can, we should give of our best, or even a little less, because that shows love and diligence of soul. But we shouldn’t seek the stamp of approval from others. The others are the occasion for love. The root cause of this love is our relationship with God and our faith in him. Perfectionists should be humble as regards what they expect. God sees their efforts and supports any labor which is directed towards love. Even if the person who performs it doesn’t necessarily reap the benefit.