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Chaplain's Corner + Perfectionism vs. Diligence

by Fr. George Morelli

One of the major irrational beliefs that cause and sustain disturbing emotions and unproductive behavior is a perfectionistic personal rule that “one should be thoroughly competent, adequate, and achieving in all possible respects if one is to be considered worthwhile.” (Ellis, 1962, p. 63) [1].  The inherent irrationality of perfectionism can be seen by considering that no one can be masterful in all things, and that it is often accompanied by undue anxiety, stress and physical disorders. Focusing on trying to excel over others, or considering perfection as the measure of our personal worth by demanding perfection of oneself, distracts us from task-attention and from making the appropriate choices to achieve success.

Such perfectionistic standards are opposed to diligence. A sense of diligence guides us to be conscientious in appropriately paying attention to a specific task and giving it the actions necessary to carry it out to a successful conclusion.

An appropriate understanding of religious tradition regarding perfection can aid us in being conscientious, that is to say, diligent. For many religious traditions, true perfection should focus on ‘striving’ or the journey to attain a goal.  For example, a contemporary Tibetan Buddhist scholar tells us that, in Buddhism, achieving perfection “must be cultivated.” [2] This is similar to a Hindu scholar’s understanding that “the universe is urging itself upward, pulling itself onward, towards a recognition of a perfection which alone can be called the Supreme Deity.” [3]

One contemporary Jewish commentary on the Hebrew teachings on perfection is similar: “An imperfect person fights to do what is right. He struggles with his conscience. When you fight for something, you demonstrate its worth.” [4] This is the spirit of the true Judeo-Christian ideal. This idea is like the conscientious attention of diligence previously mentioned.  Likewise, Islam focuses on the diligence necessary to attain perfection: “Don’t you yearn for Allah’s love? Then perfect your actions; the more you work [italics mine] to attain perfection, the more Allah loves you.” [5]

The Eastern Christian Church Father St. Isaac of Syria points out, with profound spiritual insight, that striving for perfection entails awareness and acceptance of one’s limitations. He tells us: “For the righteous man who has no consciousness of his own weakness walks on a razors edge, and is never far from falling  . . .(p. 187) [6] With this foundation of humility we can conscientiously work on completing a desired task.  While originally focusing on counseling those troubled by becoming distracted during their prayer, these words of Eastern Church Father Nikitas Stithatos can be applied to all our work: “When you realize your intellect has become distracted . . . bravely go back to the beginning, diligently resume it . . . .” (Vol. IV, p. 128) [7]


ENDNOTES

1 Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Secaucus NJ: Lyle Stuart.

2 http://huntingtonarchive.osu.edu/resources/downloads/sutras/05bodhisattvaYana/Six%20perfections%20(paper).pdf

3 http://www.swami-krishnananda.org/relig/relig_apx.html

4 http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/the_tyranny_of_perfection_39100326

5 http://www.islamicity.com/forum/printer_friendly_posts.asp?TID=1001

6 Holy Transfiguration Monastery. (2011). The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery

7 Palmer, G.E.H.; Sherrard, P.; and Ware, K. (Trans.) (1971, 1981, 1988, 1990). Philokalia,  I IV. London: Faber and Faber.