Do As I Say

We humans pretty much suck at spotting our own hypocrisy.  When we only talk the talk and fail to walk the walk, we’re often able to simply justify the dissonance for ourselves and keep going.  Many spiritual paths and religions have this mechanism built in.  There’s a “nobody’s perfect, we all are working towards redemption” thing written right into the dogmas and tenets, so it becomes just fine to be very knowledgeable about the expectations but crap at living up to them.  If we feel anything, it’s a little indignant guilt.  Who is someone else to judge us, right?

But when we advocate for one thing and live another, something in us lets us know. We feel it as something – usually some variation on guilt or shame or vulnerability – and it comes out in thought and action.  Maybe we get defensive or judgmental.  Maybe we become good at arguing to justify ourselves.

Me?  I’m late for things.  All the time.  I’ve battled it all my life.  In fact, I lost my first professional job over it.  And still, twenty years later, I struggle with punctuality.  I’ve gone through times when I tried to point fingers and justify my lateness by comparing myself to other more annoying or detrimental behaviors committed by others.  There have been phases when I’ve been really critical of other people being late because, for instance, they were unpredictably late by up to 30 minutes when I’m always predictably 10 minutes late.  I’ve felt guilt and shame over it.  I’ve been defensive about it.

And none of those reactions benefited anyone at all.

These days my schedule is less set in stone, and I’m the first to say that I don’t hold others to any kind of strict schedule as a rule because to do so would make me a colossal hypocrite.  It doesn’t make it better for me to be late all the time, but at least I’m not being a crappy person who on top of my lack of punctuality.

Surely it’s not worse to walk imperfectly on your spiritual path than it is to make others feel bad for not walking perfectly on theirs.  That’s what happens when we preach expectations we, ourselves, don’t uphold.  We transfer the guilt we don’t want to feel about our own perceived shortcomings onto others by holding them to standards they are unlikely to meet.  After all, if we can’t do it, why do we expect them to?

 

Don’t Let Perfect Get in the Way of Good

There’s an interesting idea which permeates spiritual thought:  perfection.  The funny thing about perfection is that, though many seem to strive for it, the definition of perfection varies widely.  Usually there’s something in there about peace and devotion and piety and love, sometimes it means obedience and sacrifice.  Sometimes it’s something we lost long ago when man fell from divine grace or when we began to ruin the Earth with our destructive ways.  Sometimes it’s something we can hope to gain after death, when the imperfect physical existence falls away.

In any case, there’s usually some kind of lesser perfection that we strive for in the present.  We try to live up to expectations of our spiritual practice, avoiding all the right bad behaviors and unfailingly observing the proper routines.  There are ways to talk and ways to dress and people we should and shouldn’t associate with.  We strive for some ideal where every morning starts with a prayer or a sun salutation or a joyful leap from bed at a ridiculously early hour.  There are battles to fight, protests to engage in, sides to take and truths to live without failing.

Of course, this isn’t just a spiritual thing, either.  We try to keep our houses always clean and eat healthy and always arrive on time.  Money should be saved and not wasted.  Leggings are not pants.  Never pick your nose.

And it’s exhausting.  We’re bound to fail at it, because we’re human.  And maybe that’s because we fell from grace and maybe that means we just haven’t elevated ourselves enough, but the most common conclusion is that we are fairly incapable of being perfect but we’re expected to do it anyway.

I once attended a management training program during which the instructor gave us the single best piece of advice I’ve ever received:  

Don’t let perfect get in the way of good.

Don’t get so hung up on how you’re falling short of perfection that you fail to recognize what you’ve actually accomplished.  If we let our spiritual lives (or our mundane lives, for that matter) get entirely focused on doing all the right things and not doing all the wrong things as if there is a cosmic grade card and we’ll fail out of existence if we get a B, then we’ve missed the point.