I was talking with a friend the other day about perfectionism. It’s not an attribute which is much of a blessing; quite the reverse, it’s a yellow-fevered curse. I remarked that I hated to write in ink as a child, since if I made a mistake I should have to cross it out, spoiling the look of my work. The word processor was a godsend, and I still felt comfortable writing, but in pencil with its eraser immediately to hand. He murmured that this was a learned behavior – I wondered if it could ever possibly be unlearned. I thought not and used to hate myself for apparently preferring the style of my efforts rather than their substance. Such behavior, I reflected, has to do with an insularity, an artificial moat with a personal drawbridge that I create around myself. It reminded me of this:
‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And, therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’
Donne’s work was the inspiration for someone I had last read a generation ago. The great twentieth century mystic, Thomas Merton, used the same wording in the first line to entitle a book of his own. Writing in ‘No Man Is an Island’ he remarked: “The real reason why so few men believe in God is that they have ceased to believe that even a God can love them.” I found myself mentally applauding, followed by cursing myself for believing it. A friend drew another of his works: ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’ to my attention. It’s a Catholic blockbuster, written when everyone’s motivations were being questioned in the aftermath of WW2. In sixteen essays, Merton addresses those in search of enduring values, fulfilment, and salvation in inspiring and compassionate prose; a theme which pursues almost all of us. Merton’s own autobiography ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ tells of the growing restlessness of a brilliant, passionate young man whose search for faith and peace leads him, at only twenty-six years old, to take vows in one of the most demanding Catholic orders – the Trappist monks. And yet, the more he struggles to withdraw from the world, the more he finds himself immersed in it, with its patchwork of imperfections and irritatingly frequent crossings-out.
Having had flu for the past week – it does seem to take longer these days – I found myself almost Trappist-like, disengaged from the world, the drawbridge of my mind pulled up, no sallying forth for a time into the wide, wild hurly-burly. I used the opportunity to revisit Rav Cohen’s classes at Harvard on Judaism and Christianity as well as other inquiries which, had I been well, I would have dismissed as being too time-consuming or nothing more than irrelevant busyness. And yet, actually stepping away into a degree of solitude had the effect of leading me towards engagement with people and things, instead of the reverse which looked as if it might have been a much more probable outcome.
Being almost a professional, if frequently reluctant, spectator, it’s often all too easy to watch, then criticise. Theodore Roosevelt wrote “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
We – or rather I – must learn to engage, emotionally and spiritually with the grime of my surroundings, jaggedly imperfect and flawed as they are, trying, even when I might fail, attempting even when the outcome is uncertain. As Merton wrote “A man who fails well is greater than one who succeeds badly.”