To the surprise of many, Canadian ice skater Elizabeth Manley emerged from the pack in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary to secure her place in history as a silver medalist. She had been in the skating world for a long time, so why would her victory have been such a surprise? This accomplished skater had consistently lost competitions because, according to skating commentators, she buckled under the pressure of world-class events.
But something was different this time.
Instead of appearing nervous and slightly out of control, she was poised and skillful. It was evident that this was a mental victory that assured her success on the ice. Ms. Manley had trained in a new way. She sought to focus on her love of skating rather than on a turn-by-turn perfect performance. This caused her to shape her axels and toe loops with care - and precision.
Manley's example prompted me to look closer at the difference between the perfectionism that keeps one constantly grasping to become perfect and the spiritual perfection that is inherent in each of us.
In her book "Bird by Bird," Anne Lamott refers to the "tyranny of perfectionism." Perfectionism is indeed a tyrant. This fear-based thinking has its roots in the belief that one doesn't quite measure up, that something needs to change or be added in order to achieve the elusive perfection. It causes one to be exacting and to focus on performance, often losing spontaneity and joy in the process, as was the case for Manley. Perfectionism chases after a competition, a new client, a high mark, or critical acclaim, for happiness. Plus, it tends to measure one's performance by a sliding scale, generally leaving one unsatisfied with the outcome. It shows no mercy for mistakes.
Spiritual perfection, on the other hand, has its source and foundation in a perfect God, the divine Mind that shaped a perfect universe. You and I are a part of that universe. So, Christ Jesus' urging of his followers, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect," is not so much a command as a promise (Matt. 5:48). It is the promise of an eternal cause and effect relationship between a perfect Principle and perfect expression of that Principle. In fact, none of us can escape spiritual perfection, although we're not always aware of it. As we increasingly see ourselves as spiritual ideas, which is how God made us and knows us, this perfection comes into focus. It paints a picture of you and me as complete, wanting nothing, and points to qualities of thought that constitute completeness. Love, joy, and vitality are essential elements. So, when a trained athlete or pianist or dancer keeps thought focused on the goal of love rather than performance, as Elizabeth Manley did, it frees him or her to perform flawlessly.
Mary Baker Eddy, who thought deeply about this innate perfection, once wrote in her book "Unity of Good," "In Christianity, man bows to the infinite perfection which he is bidden to imitate" (pages 15-16). This statement speaks to the humility required to discover one's spiritual perfection. You and I are instruments of God's perfection, so it's natural to bring that out in our lives.
What impact does this have on one's life? For me, it was a defining moment. I had always held myself to an impossible standard in business and found that this excessive pressure stripped me of satisfaction and gratitude. I traveled the world but was so focused on the task that I forgot to enjoy the experience. I can still recall when I realized I could drop the weight of perfectionism because I, in fact, was already spiritually perfect. A huge burden had been lifted. And you know, no project or client suffered in the least. Instead, I was free to accomplish tasks more easily and more proficiently, because I did them with love.
Perfectionism impacts lives through sleepless nights, undue pressure, and merciless criticism - not very inviting company to keep. Conversely, perfection, which has always been ours as God's likeness, is not dependent on circumstances, conditions, or personality. Instead, through it, we gain command over these. Choosing to drop perfectionism in favor of spiritual perfection results in a job well done, that is, a job done with perfect love, grace, intelligence, and vitality.