In 13th century Christianity, a practice arose among the believers of beating themselves publically while they urged others to repent. The concept of being harsh with ourselves for our flaws, while exhorting those around us to act better and smarter, is an attitude which has always followed religion.
Why the recurring pattern? Being hard on ourselves seems so unlike what God would intend. It may even cause Him pain. Imagine how a parent would feel if their child constantly berated himself for his lack of maturity. Yet that is the meaning of childhood! If knowledge of his immaturity were to deprive the child of the joys of his childhood, what parent wouldn’t moan in despair? Then I wonder what we do to our Parent, when we do this to ourselves.
Too many of the people I talk to beat themselves with the cudgel of perfection. It is not even true perfection, but what we imagine of perfection: a thing we have never observed. Perhaps there is a kinder view of perfection, one in which a child may be a child, and an adult an adult, with time allowed between. If our flaws stem from a lack of vision and understanding, isn’t there a perfection where this is OK for a while? Perhaps even necessary for that vision to unfold as it should?
As I write these entries, I rewrite for myself the models presented to me in my youth. There has always been so much pressure, from every side, not to fail. In high school, bad grades were connected to complete failure in life. Without them, I could not get into the right school, find a prestigious degree, a high-paying job, gain respect, have a life… Every moment, my whole future was made dependent on making the right choices – even if I was just learning how to make good choices! It’s a chicken and egg problem: how to make good decisions without the experience of making good decisions. Sometimes we resolve the dilemma by collapsing into a heap, and beating ourselves up to remove the strain of impending punishment. After which we just want to check out for a while, go get a drink, watch TV, do something utterly mindless – vegetate as we relieve the impossible pressures of being flawed at becoming perfect.
I cannot believe God intended things this way. The more I read, the more I think it is not the way of growth. Bahá’u’lláh wrote:
Lay not upon your souls that which will weary them and weigh them down, but rather what will lighten and uplift them, so that they may soar on the wings of the Divine verses towards the Dawning-place of His manifest signs; this will draw you nearer to God, did ye but comprehend.
If I seek what uplifts me, it is very different from seeking perfection. If I seek perfection, I will always fail; I must always be in a constant state of failing. If I seek upliftment – joy, beauty, wonder – I can succeed every time I make an effort. I only fail only if I don’t. It doesn’t even matter how uplifting that upliftment is – whereas the goal of perfection demands nothing less. The path of upliftment says I am at zero only as long as I do nothing; the path of perfection says I’m at negative for the rest of eternity.
Being always at negative causes me to grow weary of the enterprise. It makes me depressed, frustrated. My unruly nature simply can’t gain an inch on perfection. I try a little, or try a lot, basically I never move. No wonder my heart gives up on the goal, and turns its focus to blaming the limitations of my petty nature. It was this I spoke against in an earlier essay, The Cause of Joy.
But I cannot believe life is this hard. We are taking things too seriously. A child is not expected to fill the shoes of an adult. He grows every day, in every way, but is not chastised for his rate of growth. No parent would plan an educational system with the enduring result of hating the need to be educated. It is a self-imagined hell, whose bleak horizons are the belief that we are not worthy of love.
If a loving Parent – God, the Father – created this schoolhouse of life out of love, to educate us, how have we reshaped it into a place of torment, where the heart does penance for failing to be perfect? Education is so easily a cause of joy and wonderment, why has the process of life become a horror? Ignorance and failure are the hallmarks of a student, why have they become brands of shame? The purpose of this mortal education is to train our wings for endless flight, why do we dwell on the weakness of their present, fledgling nature? If I flagellate myself for being what I am, and for not being what I am not, how can this be what God intended.