Author Topic: Is the American attitude of perfectionism dangerous for one's soul?  (Read 194 times)

Offline TheReturnofLive

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Very recently, with where I am in my life, I had to confront (well, I'm still confronting) the reality that I am a perfectionist - and according to a couple of Priests (Orthodox) that I had discussed with, one who gave a talk on the subject (I wonder if it was Divine Providence) and the other was just in Confession, they said that perfectionism is a vice which can be crippling towards the goal of Theosis.

Perfectionism is this attitude where one sets arbitrary goal posts in the far distance, which we classify as "Saintly" or "perfect for me", far from where you are spiritually, such that you can stop any and all spiritual striving once you reach it, and when you try to reach it, and fail, you really, really beat yourself up for not living up to those standards and not being sinless, falling into a downward spiral of self-criticism and self-lashing.

While of course we should "strive for perfection", perfectionism becomes dangerous when we pretend that there is a goal-post we can run past and stop running. Our attitude should be infinite striving no matter what.


The truth is, nobody is perfect except Christ, and those made perfect through Christ (the Saints who have gone before us). "All have fallen short of the Glory of God," and the truth is all of us will have flaws and continue to sin (even if it's just involuntarily) towards our death, whether you like it or not.


We live in a society in the West that constantly promotes perfectionism - we are taught from the very youngest age to study perfectly for our exams (the ACT, SAT, etc.), to win gold medals in sports and be the star player in Varsity sports, to work so hard that we get scholarships, to be at the height of the social ladder, to earn millions of dollars and do whatever it takes to get there, etc., where we set these far goal posts and act as though this is the only goal and once we reach it we don't have to do anything else.


And this got me thinking - that this heavy criticism of perfectionism fits really well with the whole Catharsis, Theoria, and Theosis (Purgation, Illumination, and Union) paradigm of Christianity, which one can find in the Cappadocian fathers (especially in the likes of Saint Basil the Great) and even with the spiritualities of some Western Fathers like St. John of the Cross.


But the other paradigm (wherein comes the debate of whether these two paradigms are two sides of the same coin) is the "State of Grace" vs. "State of Reprobation" model, forwarded by the likes of St. Anselm of Canterbury, where the goal is to just avoid "Mortal Sins" (something which can't be 100% precise in defining what certain sins are; when does gluttony become mortal for example?), which in of itself put you in a "State of Reprobation" that you need to go to Confession to fix, so that you are back in a "State of Grace." Be in a State of Grace you get to Heaven, be in a State of Reprobation you are condemned for eternal fire.

and it got me thinking about two questions.

1. What do Traditional Catholics think about the American attitude of perfectionism on one's spiritual life? Is it dangerous spiritually?
2. Does the "State of Grace" vs. "State of Reprobation" model encourage the problems of perfectionism in of itself? Why or why not? Is the "State of Grace" a dangerous, arbitrary goal post?
« Last Edit: December 18, 2018, 01:48:47 PM by TheReturnofLive »
 

Offline Daniel

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Re: Is the American attitude of perfectionism dangerous for one's soul?
« Reply #1 on: December 22, 2018, 06:58:27 AM »
Well, I would say that the sort of perfectionism you describe can hardly be called "American". Because as an American, I'd say that Americans are fat, stupid, and lazy. While there are some Americans who may be pressured by their friends and families and even themselves to work hard... sometimes even falling into workaholism in the hopes of attaining the so-called "American dream"... I would say that these Americans are the minority.
Most Americans have the opposite problem. They follow only their feelings and take the path of least resistance. They don't work hard. They take shortcuts and expect free handouts. "Work smarter, not harder" is what I was taught in school. Those who deserve prosperity generally don't prosper... while those who are undeserving of it do manage to attain it through lying and cheating and by manipulating the emotions of those who have power to help them out.

But back to the questions at hand.

1. I would say perfectionism could be dangerous for two reasons. 1.) Since nobody can ever attain perfection in this life, then it follows that if we pretend that there's a "goal post" and if we stop trying once we reach it, then we're in trouble. 2.) The perfectionist attitude seems to tend toward Pelagianism. We begin to think that our progress is due primarily to our own efforts when in fact it's not.
That said, I would think the perfectionist attitude is generally not all that bad. Because at least you're working towards your end. It's far less dangerous than the slothful and worldly attitude of sitting around, content with doing nothing, with no desire to become a saint or even to acquire the natural virtues.

2. Honestly, I've never noticed such a model. True, the foundation is to "avoid mortal sin" and to "remain in a state of grace". But I don't think anyone holds that this is all there is to the spiritual life, or that this is where you should stop. Venial sin must be avoided too, for many reasons. Because 1.) it's offensive to God, 2.) it means more suffering in purgatory, and 3.) venial sin leads to mortal sin (and in some cases it's hard to draw the line between the two). I don't think anyone truly believes that "venial sin is ok so long as you have reached the goal of avoiding mortal sin and remaining in a state of grace". (Plus, I'm not even sure that that's possible. It would seem to me that the very fact that you're ok with venial sin proves that you don't love God... and if you don't love God then you're not in a state of grace.)
« Last Edit: December 22, 2018, 07:10:49 AM by Daniel »
 

Offline Kreuzritter

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Re: Is the American attitude of perfectionism dangerous for one's soul?
« Reply #2 on: December 22, 2018, 01:26:10 PM »
But the other paradigm (wherein comes the debate of whether these two paradigms are two sides of the same coin) is the "State of Grace" vs. "State of Reprobation" model, forwarded by the likes of St. Anselm of Canterbury, where the goal is to just avoid "Mortal Sins" (something which can't be 100% precise in defining what certain sins are; when does gluttony become mortal for example?),

One doesn't need to define it with perfect precision. One ought to know it, and unless one is already so far in the deep of sin, one will know when a voluntary indiscretion has damaged ones relationship with God in a real way, and if it isn't obvious, one should at least be able to recognise it in turning ones attention toward the snuffing out of supernatural charity in ones soul in everyday thoughts and actions. Gluttony itself isn't an act to be a sin but a vice that manifests in driving one to sinful acts, and the Catholic criteria of mortality here are quite clear: grave matter and acting with knowledge and intent.

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which in of itself put you in a "State of Reprobation" that you need to go to Confession to fix, so that you are back in a "State of Grace." Be in a State of Grace you get to Heaven, be in a State of Reprobation you are condemned for eternal fire.

This distinction is phenomenologically pretty obvious to me as a convert who was baptised in adulthood, as it continues to be obvious to me in the consequences of sin and the sacrament of confession. State, state, state - either I have has sin on my conscience, in which case I can quite clearly feel that separation between God and me and dimming of the light of virtue inside, or I don't, in which case my life and experience of the world takes on a totally different colour. You can call that whatever you like.

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1. What do Traditional Catholics think about the American attitude of perfectionism on one's spiritual life? Is it dangerous spiritually?

Calvinism.

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2. Does the "State of Grace" vs. "State of Reprobation" model encourage the problems of perfectionism in of itself? Why or why not? Is the "State of Grace" a dangerous, arbitrary goal post?

Nope. I can walk into that confessional every day or more than once a day for the rest of my life if need be for the grace of forgiveness, where the goal is not perfection but repairing a friendship with God. And the state of grace is not an arbitrary goalpost but just as much an experiential reality as hesychasm's Tabor light, except it is usually much easier to obtain, namely, one needn't be a monk with tiem to meditate riorously all day long but only a simple Christian with a contrite heart and a priest to grant the absolution.
 

Offline Gardener

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Re: Is the American attitude of perfectionism dangerous for one's soul?
« Reply #3 on: December 22, 2018, 06:05:57 PM »
TRoL (Ha! did you mean to do that?),

You might consider the following work, Light and Peace, in particular the chapter on "Christian Perfection":

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/38355/38355-h/38355-h.htm#c17

You also might seek out whether or not this perfectionism you experience, which is really a vice masquerading as a virtue (a subset or perhaps cause of scruples?), is actually a problem with you rather than American culture (which frankly doesn't seem to exude perfectionism in anything).

As Kreuzritter has stated, there are Calvinist elements at play, and given America's Protestant patrimony those elements are retained in certain regards.

You need, as you will read in Light and Peace, to be more faithful and less harsh on yourself. That requires humility (which is actually a virtue which tends toward the truth, not mere self-deprecation).

Let me ask you, would you be mad at yourself if you set a goal to work towards and had not completed the steps necessary to reach the goal? For example:

If you decided you wanted to run a 7 minute mile, and you knew you could only run a 9 minute mile, and you worked with a track coach on a program to run a 7 minute mile, would you be beating yourself up halfway through the program for running an 8 minute mile? I hope not. The spiritual life is the same. But in order to know progress, you must know and more importantly acknowledge in humility, where you are. Moreover, you must recognize that your thoughts are not God's thoughts, and your timeline is not His. He might desire that you not reach perfection on your timeline because He sees how a particular thorn will keep you honest in pursuit of Him into your elder years. Moreover, imagine the torture of reaching perfection with 50 more years to suffer fools and not be in His beatific presence.

"And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we are ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?" - St. Maximilian Kolbe