Saturday, February 9, 2019

Perfectionism and Success: Is it an Illusion?

Consider then, how all the peoples of the world are bowing the knee to a fancy of their own contriving, how they have created a creator within their own minds, and they call it the Fashioner of all that is—whereas in truth it is but an illusion. Thus are the people worshipping only an error of perception. - 'Abdu'l-Bahá

Recently I have been reflecting on what is success, what is good, what is getting it right and what does it mean to be doing well. We have all asked and been asked, How are you doing? and we respond, I'm good. I'm doing well. But what does that mean really? Does that mean all things are in order and everyone is marching ahead? Does that mean we are all getting straight As in life and everything we do? We have set up a system of good and bad, of right and wrong, and some of us make it and others fall short. But who set up this standard? How do we know if this standard is valid and what makes it a standard? There are two sources I go to when trying to decide whether something has merit or not: Divine Teachings and Stories.

Image of dream catcher to represent a spiritual blueprint for life

Divine Teachings

What are divine teachings? They are also known as Holy books or Holy words and they come from the Prophets, messengers sent to guide humanity with a spiritual blueprint through this maze of life. One of the continuous strands of these great Teachers and their Texts is they all mirror each other. None of these Prophets deviates from the other in their spiritual concepts. They guide humanity forward with the same stream of guidance for the spirit:

  • Be humble
  • Embrace tests and difficulties
  • Live a life of prayer and supplication

So then why do we think when life is hard or when we're facing mass difficulties that it is a sign that we failed? Why do we cringe back in shame when we don't "get life right"? Why do we think prayer and supplication are for nuns and monks cloistered on a mountain top? 

I think we have strayed so far from our spiritual blueprint that we have created our own measurements and they are based on the world's standards. We believe that there is such a thing as a gifted student that implies others are not. We believe that getting straight As means we have succeeded and when we prepare hard for something and don't get it, we have failed. We have forgotten we are spirit beings first with full access to all the powers of the spirit realm:
    Young man sitting with presence and joy

  • Intuition
  • Presence
  • Love - Love - Love

These are powerful tools that can help us breakaway from this world of illusions where we measure our spirits to material standards. How far does your spirit stretch? Far beyond the canyons of the mountains, but how would you know this if every time you face a test and difficulty you cringe back in shame? If every time your kid does not make the honor roll, does not make the dean's list you hold back and wonder what you did wrong? It is not to say that those who do are getting it wrong either. It is to say that we should not measure ourselves against the false standards of man. Instead, we should look deep within and ask: 

  • What am I learning about patience? about love? about being present?
  • What am I learning about how to love deeply despite my loved one's shortcomings?
  • What am I learning about staying in the conversation when things are not going well?
  • What am I learning about what to do with deep pain and sorrow when I feel I can't seem to get things right? 

And what about stories?


I think beyond being a storyteller, I am also drawn to stories because a good story tells us of a life well-lived. They tell us of how life can try and shape and mold a person, but when led by Spirit, the protagonist in the story instead releases all control and is guided by a much deeper inner knowing, a calling, a truth that will not release them and while on the inside it is pure light and love, on the outside it can look like a mess and a half. 

What are examples of this kind of life? There are many and again, I often turn to those early believers of the great Prophets to see what they did when trying to live a life based on the spiritual blueprint they were given and not this external reality they live in. 

Paul comes to mind. I have not studied the Bible as many of my dear friends have, but when I am faced with great tests and difficulties - and I have been completely flattened out by tests numerous times - many of my dearest friends will ask me to look to the life of Paul. Paul, an early Christian teacher, spent the majority of his life in prison. He often referenced a deep and difficult pain that assailed him continuously and yet he learned to glory in this weakness because the message he got was, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness." And yet, all of us try and get away from weakness. Still, the great teachers of these stories show us that in weakness they are strong, in humility they are powerful. 
Another example for me of this understanding is someone more recent to our lives, South African Freedom Fighter Nelson Mandela. What a fiery power he was his whole life and yet how different this fire showed up at different times of his life! Initially as he worked tirelessly to break Apartheid he used this fire to place a constant strain on this unjust system. After he was imprisoned, he continued to fight and over time this fire bowed to humility and his gentle presence became a testament of faith in the nobility of the soul of all humans, even those who aspired to oppress him. 

  • Humility 
  • True joy in the face of extreme pain
  • A life not of material successes

These are concepts we are not very comfortable with, instead we want demonstrations of material wealth, some outward manifestation of success that the world would applaud - surely this does not include: imprisonment, a C or D student, unemployment, underemployment. And of course, one does not desire these things, nor should one strive towards them. But if they happen to you, wouldn't the real measurement come with how did you walk these tests? Wouldn't the real question be, what can we all learn with you as you learn to walk these difficulties with spirit feet? Because if you are willing to expand, if you are willing to help us all break away from this illusion, you would invite us on this journey of life you are living and you would teach us about what you are learning:

  • How does a soul expand beyond its current limitations?
  • How does pain become a tool for healing and greater joy?
  • How do we walk away from shame and embrace humility and truth-seeking?

I am learning these things and I invite you to walk with me and I will share all I learn. I hope you will do the same.