THE WORD "perfectionism" has a way of popping up in AA talks, and some alcoholics will confess that they suffered from a desire to be perfect in everything.
Perfectionism is a liability, not an asset. For the alcoholic, it usually ends in sloth. The individual has such high standards, such exaggerated goals, that he may take the opposite route and do nothing well. He really wants to be best; failing that, he settles for mediocrity or less. And he clings fiercely to his perfectionism despite the picture of failure he presents to the world.
Naturally, this perfectionism has to be dumped if a person is going to remain sober and achieve within the limits set by his own abilities and the world he lives in. But if perfectionism is a liability, perfection is not. Any individual can reach perfection in his life if he truly seeks it.
This sounds astonishing, since we are told repeatedly that "Perfection is for saints" and "Only God is perfect." But perfection is nothing more than adequacy or completeness. When we recognize that, it comes to us that a lot of things in our lives are indeed perfect.
For one thing, I take constant delight in the perfection of my seven-year-old automobile, which just passed the 92,000-mile mark. It is on its second paint job and fourth set of tires, and the beautiful seat covers (which I bought last year after unexpectedly selling a magazine article) were installed moments before the original upholstery disintegrated totally. But the car runs well and seems capable of three or four more years of good service. Is it stretching the point to say that my aging but comfortable car is perfect, since it is entirely adequate for my requirements?
Then there is the house my family has lived in for the past four years. I think of it as a perfect house, because it has sheltered us well and we have been completely happy in it. Some people could find flaws here and there. Three lively boys have left their marks on the carpeting, and the patterned glass panels of the shower doors no longer match, because my three-year-old shattered a pane during a particularly exciting bath one evening. The house lacks a basement, and sometimes the family room is a little chilly in the evenings, because it is a converted garage. But the house has been so adequate that we'll never think of it as less than perfect, even if fortune should eventually install us in a palace.
Automobiles, houses. A lot of alcoholic perfectionism does center around things of a material nature. I never owned a car or a house when I was drinking, but my foolish fantasies included the biggest and best of both. If I had owned a car, I would have brooded over every blemish and the slightest rattle; I simply couldn't have accepted it for what it was, a vehicle for transportation, and let it go at that. The house I wanted was a big one, with only the finest furniture and a massive bar in the basement. But if I had finally owned it, I wouldn't have been satisfied; sooner or later, I would have uncovered grotesque defects and shortcomings in it.
What about myself and my own achievements? My dreams were so grandiose that I'm still ashamed to talk about them. I wanted to excel in everything, and I couldn't stand the thought of being second-best in any activity. The result, as you may easily guess, is that I was often last--because I never even tried.
It occurs to me today that this perfectionism was very costly indeed, for there were many times that I could have been second- or third-best, and this would have been an entirely respectable achievement that people would have applauded. And at times, I might even have been first, particularly with the improved skill that comes from repeated trying. But instead I withdrew from all competition and consoled myself with the great things I might have done. We hear all the time about alcoholics who could have done so well if only they had tried.
Well, why didn't they try? Wasn't it through fear that they could not achieve at the high level of their own fantasies? Did they prefer an exalted fantasy life to the real but less exciting achievements possible through their own capabilities? Did they choose a false "what might have been" over a tangible "what really could be"? Perhaps they did. Certainly I did.
Looking back over my years in AA, I can recall lots of incidents that did not go particularly well and would probably be called imperfect by the world's standards. There was the time a prison inmate suddenly became angry with me at a meeting inside the walls, and I left feeling disturbed and inadequate, certain I had nothing to say to prison AA members. There was another time I offered advice that did absolutely nothing at all for the individual I was trying to help. There is also the humbling realization that apparently no person I ever sponsored has remained sober.
But there's good in all of this. The encounter with the inmate taught me that I was probably prancing into the prison AA meetings with a patronizing attitude, an outsider bringing light and salvation to the oppressed. Later, I became a little less patronizing, and nobody got mad any more. As for giving advice, my mistakes in that area taught me to leave advice-giving to Ann Landers in all but extreme circumstances. And the fact that nobody I sponsored ever got sober? Well, I have concluded that I am no worse than many sponsors and that I have given certain individuals some assistance--and that all of us were helped in the process.
Any of our experiences should teach us lessons, which in turn help us in our future growth. If the lessons were sufficient, they were perfect lessons, in spite of the cost in personal humiliation and pain. Even our drinking was a step toward perfection if it eventually led to something better--as it obviously did for so many AA members.
All of us are limited creatures in search of more adequacy, in search of more completion in our own lives. If something is adequate for its own time and place, it deserves to be called perfect. By that standard, most of us have been reaching perfection right along without realizing it. Perfectionism was a tyrant we could never appease, but we are delightfully perfect when we become adequate--which, in a way, is becoming ourselves.
M. D. B.
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