- Ayyam-i-Ha is a Baha’i festival that is joyously celebrated in countries and territories all over the world. It is a time of hospitality, generosity, and caring for the needy. This year Ayyam-i-Ha runs from February 26-29.
Confession: I’m a perfectionist. So that’s saying something about perfectionism–it’s not a good thing. Trying to be perfect has caused me a lot of stress. I’m not perfectionistic about everything. I’m a fairly tidy person, but I don’t obsess about everything being perfectly clean. Of course, Covid did turn my desire to be hygienic into a bit of an obsession.
For me, perfectionism manifests as trying to make the right decisions and avoid mistakes at all costs, trying to cram as much into my day and avoid wasting time. It means to do things in a methodical and logical way so that I don’t backtrack and waste time and resources. But perfectionism manifests in multiple forms for different people but no matter what it looks like, it is defined by a refusal to accept, or frustration that arises with any standard short of perfection.
A big part of dealing with my perfectionism is in trying to understand the Baha’i perspective of perfection. I have been a Baha’i for 20 years and only now am starting to understand what striving for perfection means in practice.
“Veiled in My immemorial being and in the ancient eternity of My essence, I knew My love for thee; therefore I created thee, have engraved on thee Mine image and revealed to thee My beauty.”– The Hidden Words, p. 4
God is the most perfect being, and we have been created in His image. But we are not perfect. As Abdu’l-Baha explained:
“Man is in the highest degree of materiality, and at the beginning of spirituality — that is to say, he is the end of imperfection and the beginning of perfection.”– Some Answered Questions, p. 235
So, should we sit still in this middle ground? No, I don’t think so. From what I understand, to live a Baha’i life is to strive daily to move closer and closer to perfection. Or as Shoghi Effendi explained:
“Perfection will never be reached, but great, and ever greater, progress can be made.”– Lights of Guidance, p, 113
What’s hard for me is to keep striving for perfection without getting hard on myself for falling short—in other words it’s hard for me to strive for perfection without falling into the pitfall of perfectionism. I think an answer can be found in the pursuit of excellence. Elliot Cohen distinguishes between striving for perfection and striving for excellence, the latter being “a healthy and productive way to live.” He also holds that it is ok to aim for the stars but not to demand that you get there. 1
I think we could see excellence as the balance between perfectionism and apathy, what Aristotle called “The Golden Mean.” On the one hand, it is unhealthy to refuse to accept anything short of perfection, but on the other hand, it is not very worthwhile to give up completely on any standards. This would lead to a very disorderly and destructive life. Therefore, I think the ideal is to commit ourselves to excellence, moving closer and closer to perfection, even though we know we will never get there.
I’ve come to this realisation many times and told myself that I will stop demanding to be perfect. But I keep on doing it. Why? Because it’s very easy to slip out of that middle ground. In fact, it’s probably a life-long balancing act between caring too much about things and not caring enough. At work, we might find ourselves obsessing about checking our e-mails so that they are perfectly written, free of errors and in a “pitch-perfect” tone. Then, when we get tired of all the stress this creates and all the time it wastes, we might regress to sloppy writing. But embodying excellence while balancing the various things we have to do at work would be somewhere in between.
One thing that is really important to me is to recognise the signs that tell me I am slipping into perfectionism. And for me it is stress. When I start demanding nothing short of perfection, I become really stressed and my whole body and mind become debilitated. For a long time I just tried to push through this stress, to live with it with the hope that as I progressed spiritually I would not be phased by the daily tasks I had to do. I had my doubts about whether this was the way a Baha’i should live, but I persisted. Recently, I came across some words of the Bab that changed my perspective.
The Bab was very much focused on the pursuit of excellence in all things. He encouraged His followers to “reflect in their handiwork naught but perfection within the limits of each endeavour… these are all binding to the extent that one possesseth the means to do so, not to inflict pain on one-self toward perfecting things.” 2
What this means to me is that we do our best to excel at things, to move closer and closer to perfection, but if this starts to become painful, we back off. This might mean that something becomes physically painful, emotionally painful or mentally painful. Whatever type of pain it is, the pain is a sign that we are over-exerting ourselves. Not only that, we are forcing our will on the world. Of course, there’s a certain amount of discomfort we need to deal with, otherwise we would lose heart at every challenge that life presents us with. I think the gym can provide a useful analogy. When we are working out, we can feel our muscles being worked and we have to put in some effort. If we don’t exert ourselves enough, we won’t build muscle. But if we exert ourselves too much, we will strain a muscle. So, we have to stay attuned to what’s going on inside our body.
To me, this means that we need to practice mindfulness and stay connected to our body, emotions and mind so that we can be aware of the warning signs of either over-exertion or under-exertion. Then we can rebalance and position ourselves towards excellence.
From a more positive angle, I think striving for excellence also has the potential to be an energising force. I remember the times when I have been absorbed in a task, doing my best but not over-exerting myself. I have been in a state of flow. And it felt good. It gave me energy and a sense of peace.
Wherever we are on the scale of apathy to perfectionism, to get to the golden-mean of excellence takes time and patience. We need to persist but I think we also need to praise ourselves for the small progress we make. Fingers crossed I’m listening to this advice! Not perfectly, but well enough.
Footnotes & Citations
- Elliot Cohen, Making Peace with Imperfection, p. 1
- 6 Persian Bayan vahid 3, chapter 17; translated in Saeidi, Gate of the Heart, p. 317
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