Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great voices of 20th Century American Protestantism and one of the great preachers of his day, once said: “Existence is what you find. Life is what you create.” In a similar vein, I once saw a poster in a card shop which showed a little cabin, all alone in a clearing in the woods—and it proclaimed to all who saw it: “Whatever your lot in life, build something on it!”
Such is, broadly speaking, the overriding ethos of Western civilization. We are put here on this Earth to accomplish something, to leave behind something tangible when we’re gone.
I love Longfellow’s words that we shared earlier in the service: all that talk of “working in these halls of time” and building today “strong and sure”. They are words that ring true within me. We want to build something upon this Earth, leave behind some evidence that we were here when we’re gone. There’s nothing at all wrong with that.
But sometimes, I think that we get too hung up on thinking that we have to get it all right, that we have to do it perfectly. Or at least, that it has to seem that way.
Now, in case you haven’t noticed, perfection is not part of the specifications list of the standard human model. It’s not in our human job description, at least not as almost all of us actually do the job of being human.
Yet, still, we have convinced ourselves that we have to try. We have to pretend that there is such a thing as human perfection and that we are it—or damn close. Still, we strive to maintain the illusion of having it all together, all the time-- even when we know, deep down inside, that it’s really just an act. That is, sadly, the way we go through life, so very often; I think we do ourselves real psychological and spiritual (and sometimes, even physical) harm in the process.
Sometimes, perhaps, we are in the same boat with that little boy who, after arriving at school one morning, remembered that he was supposed to have brought his birth certificate: “Oh no,” he exclaimed, totally distraught, “I forgot my excuse for being born!”
Maybe some of us feel (sometimes at least) that we, too, need an excuse for having been born; or, that we have to “prove” that we deserve to be here; that all of our i’s have to be dotted, and all the our t’s need to be crossed, and all those ducks need to be in a row, in order for us prove ourselves “worthy” of a sense of gladness at the very fact of our existence. We have forgotten, it seems, that living on this Earth is not something we’ve earned through any of our own efforts. It’s a free and amazing gift of grace, pure and simple, and our calling is to get on with the actual living of our lives, and not merely play acting at them.
There lies the great snare of striving, at all costs, to keeping up the appearance of perfection. “There is tragedy in perfection,” wrote the 20th Century philosopher George Santayana, “because the universe in which perfection arises is itself imperfect.”
For we are imperfect, each one of us. That’s just the way we are made. “Everything God has made has a crack in it,” Emerson once said. But how often we seem to run from this fact of our existence.
Where does this need for keeping up appearances come from? In his book, How Good Do We Have to Be?, the well-known rabbi Harold Kushner asks just that question, and offers a few possible explanations:
“Did we get it from our parents, who hoped we would make up for the empty spaces in their own lives?” Kushner asks. “From teachers who took for granted everything we did right and focused on every mistake? From religious leaders who told us that Adam and Eve broke one rule and were punished forever?”
“Do women get the message of perfection from movies and fashion ads, featuring actresses and models with figures they can’t hope to match? Do men get it from relentless pressure to sell more, to earn more, and from a society that makes fun of losers in the Super Bowl for being only the second best football team in the world?”
How sad it is, Rabbi Kushner points out, that organizers of the National Spelling Bee every year have to provide a “comfort room” where children can go to cry, to yell, to scream, to be comforted and consoled when they misspell a single word and are eliminated from competition. These are young people who have just spelled dozens of words that neither you nor (most certainly not) I could ever hope to spell—who have made it to the National Finals for God’s sake—an amazing accomplishment! That’s something in which they ought to feel genuine pride— why should they need to feel awful about missing one single word?
(Rabbi Kushner adds that, to this day, he can’t see the word “judgment” without remembering that it was the word he got wrong in the finals of his elementary school spelling bee more than sixty
Of course, none of this makes any rational sense whatsoever. If there is one thing we all should have learned by now in our 36—or 57—or 65—or 80-something-- years on this planet, it’s that sometimes the veil is going to fall, and our human imperfections will lie exposed for all the world to see. And you know what? For most of us, almost all of the time, they’re no big deal. With the exception of those relatively few Really Bad Things that people sometimes do, most of us, most of the time, are drawing from that same, common pool of screw ups, dysfunctions, and bad judgments. Failed marriages; family estrangements; running up too much debt; giving into our baser instincts; not being as caring or compassionate as we should have-- challenges we face, certainly; sometimes, even real tragedies in our lives. But not reasons, really, for us to hang our heads in shame and exile ourselves from the land of the living; nor are they reasons to hide who we really are from others; because, in one way or another, I would bet that almost all of us have been there, or someplace similar.
If you think of all the human interactions of which we are part—the countless interpersonal transactions we complete in the course of a day—there’s no surprise that, inevitably, we’re going to mess some of them up.
Let’s say that we complete 200 interactions in the course of a day: every single business transaction; every social interaction; every “hello” and “excuse me”; every “because I said so”; every “get your feet off the coffee table”. That would mean that we face at least 73,000 interactions in the course of a year. Which means that, if we only mess up 1% of them (and 99% is a good grade to strive for in most human endeavors, and it really is a good thing, I think, that most of us aren’t brain surgeons or air traffic controllers or head of the Federal Reserve), that means that we’ll each make 730 mistakes in the course of a year. We can make 730 mistakes a year-- and still get an A+!
Striving not to screw up too badly is a pretty good goal to seek. But it’s hardly perfection. It’s 730 reasons to feel regret; 730 times to wish we’d done it differently; 730 opportunities to know that we’re not perfect; 730 times to pick ourselves up, and try again.
Looking at it differently, too, those 730 mistakes can also be a source of great hope. As Leo Buscaglia once said, “I pledge not to demand that you be perfect, until I am perfect myself. So, for now, we’re both safe.”
We don’t have to look at our imperfections as Mount Everests we have to scale to prove ourselves worthy, or as insurmountable Berlin Walls that separate us from one another. Instead, we can see our imperfections as bridges that connect us to one another—pathways of our shared humanity—common ground that we can use as a foundation for sharing our stories with one another, and comforting one another, and learning from one another.
Being willing to share openly our human imperfections, without shame and without fear, is the basis of true compassion; and compassion (and the deep humility which it ought to engender) form the basis of a living spirituality.
Rabbi Kushner also wrote: “I believe in a God who knows how complicated human life is, how difficult it is to be a good person at all times, and who expects not a perfect life, but an honest effort at a good one.”
Should we expect any more from one another, then, than a decent effort at a decent life?
And we are called upon to make that decent effort. We are called to try to live up to our highest ideals. Reminding ourselves that we aren’t perfect is not the same as saying that we ought not to try to do our best. As gifted, talented, creative human beings (which we all are, or have the potential to be, in so many diverse and amazing ways), we are called upon to be true to the best that is within us. It can be a handy excuse, I suppose, to say, “Well, I can’t be perfect, I can’t do it all, so I’m not going to do anything to better myself, my family, my community, my world.” That’s a cop-out people take sometimes, too.
But it’s hardly the way to lead a full and worthwhile life, either. There is a vast difference between being a perfectionist (which is not healthy, in my opinion) and a lifelong striving for excellence (which is certainly commendable).
Even though the boundary between the two can get fuzzy at times, we do have inside of us these internal barometers which help us to know the difference. Call it conscience, or intuition, or instinct, or the voice of God in the soul, or what have you; if we listen to it, and use it to help us weigh and measure our actions, then we can discern what’s going on. This internal barometer can help to remind us—to remind ourselves-- when we’re “keeping it real” and when we’re play acting (because sometimes, even that’s not as easy as you might think). Very simply, real living and play acting feel different from one another, deep down inside.
Real living is willing to show that it can be wrong sometimes, that it has made mistakes, that it still has so much to learn.
Keeping up appearances has to be right all the time; its entire reason for being is not to let the facade drop.
Real living is willing to take risks.
Keeping up appearance is based on fear; it clings to the well-worn, well rehearsed pathway, though all else be lost.
Real living feels empowering.
Keeping up appearances feels like anger and frustration.
Real living is spontaneous.
Keeping up appearances is about control.
Real living is accepting.
Keeping up appearance is judgmental—not just of others, but just as much of ourselves.
Real living goes forth in confidence.
Keeping up appearances clings to the rock of its own self-doubt.
Real living is all about going with the flow.
Keeping up appearances is standing still like Atlas, holding on our shoulders a world of false premises.
Keeping up appearances is a Potemkin village of a life, a false façade behind which lurks nothing of real and abiding value. It’s a stop sign, which seeks to control the wild highway of life
Real living is, in sum, an ongoing, never-ending journey of heart, and mind, and soul.
These lives of ours are never, truly, like Game Seven of the World Series, where there’s just one winner. Nor are they the Super Bowl—where there’s only one “best team”, and everyone else is a loser.
Life is always Opening Day of another season of our living, another step along the way of our great pilgrimage.
May we be sustained by hope as we continue our journey, and may we find courage to travel unafraid. May we delight in the presence of our fellow pilgrims, every step of the way. And may we share openly and honestly the gifts of who we are with our fellow creatures in this world.