A delightful essay by David Dudley in the New York Times, “The Mercury Class,” garnered my curiosity. About a particular series of cars, it pointed to the realm of the mind and the spirit, at least in my thoughts.
Dudley writes about his father’s strivings to become a full professor; when he reached that goal, he went from buying the Ford (a lunch pail car) to the slightly more prestigious Mercury--a vehicle that wasn’t a deluxe Lincoln Continental, but a modest award for his achievement. Last month Ford Motor Company announced then end of building Mercury cars, and Dudley wrote: “But let’s at least take a moment to wave farewell to the Vanilla class of Americans who once drove the cars--the modest strivers who aimed not for the best but for the good-enough."
The “good enough”? Aren’t we taught to push for more, to strive for the best, even to practice in every endeavor the dictum that “anything worth doing is worth doing well”? Many who grew up around Vatican II experienced the tremendous push toward perfection in Catholicism. As a college teacher today, I note little evidence for scrupulosity in religion, but scruples and worry have morphed into a different arena--the search for the perfect college, internship, grade point average, or job. When I look at my students' resumes and see part-time jobs, sports, clubs, and volunteer activities of every stripe, I sometimes wonder, “how do they ever find time to think, to reflect?”
Shockingly, G. K. Chesterton dared to proclaim, “Anything worth doing is worth doing POORLY.” How can this be? His argument runs counter to everything we have been taught by our parents, teachers, schools and culture. We want our brain surgeon to be the best. We expect that our airline pilot graduated only after many others failed. We want our dentist to have been in the top fifth of the class. And we pray that someday soon, Fordham will edge out Nortre Dame as the best Catholic University in the United States. Of course, Chesterton encouraged seeking excellence where it is truly important, but he railed against the stifling perfectionism that keeps us from relaxing, trying new things and taking risks, or judging ourselves and others by tunnel-vision standards of perfectionism.
Cognitive psychologists, those who hope to change feelings by changing thoughts, include perfectionism as one of the great intellectual traps. In his book “Feeling Good,” based on Aaron Beck’s cognitive psychology, David Burns, M.D. writes: “Perfection is the ultimate illusion. It simply doesn’t exist in the universe. There is no perfection. It’s really the world’s biggest con game, it promises riches and delivers misery. The harder you strive for perfection, the worse your disappointment will become because it’s only an abstraction, a concept that doesn’t fit reality. Everything can be improved if you look at it closely and critically enough--every person, every idea, every work of art, everything. So if you are a perfectionist, you are guaranteed to be a loser in whatever you do.”
These ideas are also explored in "The Spirituality of Imperfection," a collection of essays about the Alcoholics Anonymous movement edited by Lawrence Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. The book illustrates how AA brings broken people together, and through a spirituality involving gratitude, humility, tolerance, and forgiveness learn not to be perfect but to become stronger in their broken places. (The Ignatian spirit is embedded in this 12-step movement, as one of the founders had a spiritual director who was a Jesuit priest. Kurtz, for his part, began studying the movement after a botched medical surgery left him only partially able to walk. “It’s ironic that I now walk like a drunk," he quipped.)
Do we aspire for Lincolns, or will a Mercury do? Have we taken risks, done something imperfectly, added something wonderful to our lives--later realizing this never would have occurred had we sought perfection? Can we comfortably and effectively allow ourselves to be good enough parents? Is the church a comfortable place for us because it is good enough but not perfect? An essay that begins with cars ends up being a reflection on how we view our own life and the lives of others. When I ask myself these questions, they sometimes lead to alarming or disconcerting answers, and perhaps they will for you, too.
William Van Ornum