Monday, September 27, 2010

Perfectionism I: Pursuing Ever Greater Righteousness

Last weekend, we hosted a dinner party in honor of my daughter’s twelfth birthday.  A diva-in-training, she requested a formal, black-tie celebration.  She, of course, already owned a sparkly, be-sequined cocktail dress (yes, really, at less than twelve) but I had to outfit the rest of us. We are now all members of the little black dress brigade.  She planned a simple menu of steak, mashed potato, “mushy carrots”, and salad, which I thought was fortunate so that I wouldn’t tire myself unduly with the cooking and be unable to enjoy the party (something that happens regularly since I developed my chronic hysterical illness). I really wanted to make this party perfect for her.

I started the cooking for last night's dinner about 5 hours ahead.  My plan was that I'd cook ahead, have it all ready to reheat (aside from the steak, which my husband would be grilling), then shower and change into my little black dress and pearls.  But as I worked, making up the carrot recipe as I went along, I kept thinking of another little special touch that would "make it all just right", so that I ended up touching up the reheated foods in my undies (because even in an apron, stuff jumps right at my nice clothes) just minutes before the company arrived--despite, or maybe because of, having three helpers and a serious intention of not going too crazy.

I had to ask myself "what constitutes perfect?"  If I think of another little touch, an extra ingredient, a little twist, and don't do it, then is the result less than perfect?  I know that stems from the whole Pauline idea that if we do not do what we know is good, we have sinned. A total paraphrase and gross misapplication but is it really so far removed from the fundy Modesty codes or the Pharisees’ Purity codes and other absurdities in the name of sanctified living?

And then, when we actually served the meal, the steaks were charred on the outside, overdone on the inside from appliance faults rather than operator error; the mashed potatoes too thin and the gravy too thick (almost the same consistency) from reheating problems that were operator error (mine); we ran out of wine; and the toppings for the cheesecake only glopped instead of drizzled.  And everyone who ate thought it was absolutely the best food (well, except for my husband and me who both have these perfection issues). The guests ate it all up and asked for seconds.  

So, by what standard do we measure perfection? The eaters' enjoyment? (Excellent.) How relaxed and peaceful the cook was while she produced the food (poor, but not at all the worst, at least I didn't fall to pieces or start crying this time).   The comparison to how it would have turned out in a professionally equipped kitchen by, say, Bobby Flay? (As if...! But you know I made that judgment!)  And is the ante really, fairly, upped every time I think of some extra finesse? (Absurd, when you think about it, but isn't that what we do all the time?)

It seems ridiculous to over-analyze a dinner party this way but the prep and presentation seems an apt metaphor for the striving for perfection that we Christians do, and are taught to do.  Why is it so universal to teach the do-more-work-harder-feel-guilty model of Christian living but so rare to teach the rest-in-the-Lord-be-still-enjoy-the-simple-things model? Why do we let ourselves be consumed by the judgmental, perfection-seeking, always-something-holier-to-do, Pharisaical, conspicuous religiosity?


  1. I can't find that passage I referred to--Bible Gateway doesn't like my keywords. Does anyone know which one I mean?

  2. Loved this entry. And this is my thought....they say we are to rise above what is natural to us, our flesh. I agree with you about the "teach the do-more-work-harder-feel-guilty model of Christian living" maybe....that




    I think so. Because THAT is what keeps us from doing the other.

  3. Lolz I am immediately reminded of the proverb that means, more or less, ANY FOOD (no matter the condition) served with love is better than ANY FOOD (no matter how special) served without love. =)

    You are a very loving person and I'm sure that your generous heart was the main course, and the seasoning that made the rest of your meal wonderfully nourishing and tasty! n_n

    And I agree with Hillary. The fundie model of introspection and demands of personal perfection keep the focus on OURSELVES!

    That is the joy stealer- and it steals the joy from everyone in the room. It keeps us from really noticing the people we are supposedly serving- does that make sense? Our introspection and continuous self-talk keep us from really hearing our guests, keeps us from true friendship which is born when we give our all to understanding another human person and being vulnerable to them in turn.

    That is what we all want, for someone to notice us and care about our thoughts, words, feelings, experiences. And we want this from other flawed human beings- the Resolve carpet cleaner lady who sees our messes and replies casually, "oh, that's okay!". No one wants to be friends with someone they see as perfect, because how could a perfect person relate to a mere mortal anyway?

    The do-more-work-harder-feel-guilty model rips everyone off....

  4. "The do-more-work-harder-feel-guilty model rips everyone off...."


  5. Having left mormonism at 35, I found myself in a quagmire. Countless fundamentalists have come and gone, and now I fit in nicely as a left wing liberal presbyterian. They have social justice in their mission statement. That's when I knew I was home. My adult daughter is a buddhist. My son is an atheist. I don't waste my time worrying about anybody's salvation. Unlike my oober right wing sign carrying baptist friends, I don't hold the answer to salvation. God does. Diane