I was a perfectionist as a child. When an elementary school teacher gave us an assignment to write a sentence containing each of our spelling words, I couldn’t just write correct sentences. They also had to be witty, creative sentences that would entertain the teacher. So I would agonize over each one, and nothing would be good enough, and when my mother got exasperated and told me to just write anything and get on with it, I would go sit on the floor in the foyer so I could agonize over my sentences in peace.
In fact, I never encountered a level of perfectionism that I found excessive until I came to Japan, where I have known people to spend several days agonizing over the wording of a single e-mail. When I was a teacher here, I once planned an activity for an elementary school class that involved each child cutting a (pre-printed) rectangle out of a piece of paper. The cutting part alone took 20 minutes.
I think Japan’s perfectionism and my perfectionism are different, though. I am of that Western school that believes the messiness of one’s desk and hair is inversely proportional to the quality of one’s work. I think Japan is more of the meticulous type–it’s more important to cross all your t’s and dot all your i’s than to achieve any particular outcome, and the way your hair looks is also really important.
But what our perfectionisms have in common is a mechanical quality. They are about imperfect humans creating or achieving some external thing that is perfect. In my case, it is a product; in Japan’s case, it may be a performance.
When I returned to the Church, I learned about a different kind of perfect. Our Lord told us that as God makes the sun rise on the good and the bad alike, and the rain fall on the just and the unjust, so we should also strive to “be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect”–that is, by having a perfect heart that loves all people.
Rather than something external or mechanical, it’s a very human perfection. And I mean “human” not in the sense of “prone to error,” but in the sense of “the unique possessor of a soul capable of art and heroism and romance.” I believe what the Church is telling us is to become perfectly human–not to destroy ourselves by striving to confine ourselves to some soulless imitation of a machine, but to cooperate with our Creator in realizing His glorious vision from the moment when, after creating the magnificent panoply of the animal kingdom, He turned His mind to something greater–a creature made in His own image and likeness.