Perfection, Regret, and Starting Over

Perfection, Regret, and Starting Over November 14, 2011

When I was young, I developed an unhealthy perfectionist mentality.  This was a product of a combination of my own obsessive personality, the unreasonable and unpredictable expectations of a bipolar mother, and a religion (Mormonism) which took the ideal of perfection seriously [“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48)].

Looking back on my youth with some objectivity, I can now appreciate that I was a great kid: well-behaved, respectful to adults, successful in school, responsible at home.  But I didn’t feel that way at the time, and so I developed the practice of “starting over”.  Every night I would look back on my day and, feeling like a failure, decide that I would “start over” the next day.  Rilke wrote:  “I love the outsets, despite the fear and uncertainty that attach to all beginnings…begin to what? I begin – period. I have already begun a thousand lives this way.”  I’m not sure what Rilke had in mind, but by the age of twelve I had begun a thousand lives myself.  It was years before I would come to understand that this is not living.

Adrienne Rich wrote:

“No one ever told us we had to study our lives, make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history or music, that we should begin with simple exercises first and slowly go on trying the hard ones, practicing till strength and accuracy become one with the daring to leap into transcendence. And in fact we can’t live like that: we take on everything at once before we’ve even begun to read or mark time, we’re forced to begin in the midst of the hardest movement, the one already sounding as we are born.”

I understand now that life is what happens while we are making plans to begin living.  I understand that there is no erasing the past.  That the only redemption of the past comes from integrating it into the present.  And the only perfection is a kind of wholeness that comes when one can accept the past for what it is: both constitutive of the present and beyond our control.

When I left the Mormon church, I felt acutely that I had lost years of my life to a lie.  I particularly resented the two years that I had spent as a Mormon missionary proselytizing in northeast Brazil.  But I eventually came to understand that I perhaps could not have arrived where I did were it not for that investment of time.  The mission was for me a period of heightened religious intensity.  If I had not spent those two years intensely trying to live out my Mormonism, I might instead have spent twenty years doing it more slowly.

While in Brazil, I bought a copy of Paulo Coelho’s Diary of a Mage.  (The English title is The Pilgrimage.)  In it, the author has an encounter with death, which he experiences as a friend who will help him live his life more fully.  And he says that death tells him that he should “leave behind the greatest sin of all: regret”.  Those were powerful words then, but it took years for their full meaning to settle in my soul.  Of course, everyone regrets certain unwise choices in their life.  But regret can become a way of life, as it had for me — one that kept me from truly living.  For me, the Christian life of regret of “sin”, repentance (“starting over”), and striving for “perfection” had become a real impediment to living as a whole human being.

Now whenever I feel regret for having made certain choices, I remind myself of a quote from John Osborne’s play “Look Back in Anger”:

“It’s no good trying to fool yourself about love [or life]. You can’t fall into it like a soft job without dirtying up your hands. It takes muscle and guts. And if you can’t bear the thought of messing up your nice, clean soul, you better give up the whole idea of life, and become a saint, because you’ll never make it as a human being. It’s either this life or the next.”

This quote has given me a new vision of life, one radically different from that of my childhood.  Getting my hands dirty, making unwise decisions, living with the consequences: this is the point of human life as I understand it.  There is no perfection to be achieved.  There is only this life and the choice whether to live it to the fullest or not.  And, in a sense, the only sin that I have to worry about is the “sin” of regret.

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