I went trick-or-treating for the first time when I was just over one year old, dressed as a clown and carrying my orange plastic pumpkin in which my parents had placed a few pieces of candy before I left the house. At my first stop, when presented with the tray of candy from which to choose, my lip trembled as I reached into my bucket, took out one of my pieces of candy, and placed it on the neighbors’ tray. As this story was told over and over again throughout my childhood as emblematic of my personality, I learned that being the perfect daughter meant always giving of myself.
In first grade, math class often involved sitting on the floor in front of our teacher as she asked us questions. Embarrassed that I did not always know the solution, I developed a strategy to mask my ignorance: if I did not know the answer to a question, I pretended to yawn so that the hand I would normally use to signal that I wanted to be called on could be otherwise engaged in covering my gaping mouth. Somehow I had internalized the message that to be a perfect student meant always being right, and I spent the twenty-three years of my schooling career, from grade school through two rounds of graduate school, always working hard to achieve the ever-elusive perfect GPA.
In high school, tired of never quite looking right in my school uniform, I snuck it to a tailor to have it fitted and hemmed over a school break, worrying each day until I got it back that my parents would somehow find out. I got contact lenses, started spending an inordinate amount of time on my hair and make-up each morning, and went on my first diet, which consisted of consuming only a plain bagel and carton of skim milk for lunch each day. I knew what models looked like, and I knew there was a hallway at school where boys were said to judge the girls who walked by on their looks, and I began to live into the idea that being a perfect girl meant expending much effort on living up to a narrow and unrealistic image of female beauty. Over my young adult years, this beauty perfection project often took the form of restriction dieting followed by major binges, a pattern that has recently led me to seek counseling to heal from this eating disorder.
After I finished my dissertation, we hosted an open-house to celebrate. I spent the two days before the party cleaning the whole house and cooking enough food to feed the fifty or so people who would attend, all the while trying to entertain my two sons with the theme I had picked out for the week, complete with its own cooking, artistic, scientific, play, active, and literary activities to enforce their learning. By the time guests arrived, I was too exhausted to do much besides sit on the couch and accept people’s congratulations. But I tried to take solace in the fact that in addition to being an accomplished academic, people would see me as a perfect housewife and mother, able to do it all effortlessly.
Given this history of mine, it is hard for me to read Jesus’ conclusion to this week’s Gospel that we are to “be perfect,” just as our heavenly Father is perfect. Striving for perfection has not served me well. It has often meant ignoring my own needs, while always prioritizing the needs of others; holding myself to impossible standards and then feeling bad about myself when I do not meet them; and caring more about others’ perceptions of me than taking the time to get to know myself. Even more importantly, striving for perfection often has kept me from mutual and authentic human relationships and from growing in my relationship with God, since true relationships are only possible when a person brings their whole, real, and vulnerable self to the table.
I do not begrudge God God’s perfection, and I appreciate that God is perfect in love, since this is how I know that God can love and accept me and everyone else on this planet just as we are. I do not mind striving to make love of God, neighbor, and self the cornerstone of my existence, but I also know that God is God, we are human beings, and perfection in this life simply is not possible for us in the way it is for God. Human beings are vulnerable, imperfect creatures and while we can trust in God’s perfection, perhaps the best and most humane things we can ask of ourselves is to be “good enough.”