Perfection Will Do You In

Wednesday, July 5, 2017 - 5:00 am

Perfection Will Do You In

Are you a “perfectionist” who, for example, takes 30 minutes to write a post that should have taken five minutes because he had to make it “just so”? If you are, you’ll love this poem as much as I do!

You’ll also love the fact that the poet — who argues here with the 101st Psalm — is a 94-year-old Benedictine monk known worldwide for his scholarship and devotion to interfaith dialogue, who did not begin writing poetry seriously until he was 75.

Kilian McDonnell is founder and president of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John’s University and Abbey in Minnesota. Thirty-five years ago, I spent nine months as a Fellow of the Institute and got to know this remarkable man who’s full of faith and hope.

As this poem makes clear, he also has a wicked sense of humor — and “wicked” is the right word for it, even though he’s a monk!

“Perfection, Perfection”

I have had it with perfection.
I have packed my bags,
I am out of here.

As certain as rain
will make you wet,
perfection will do you

It droppeth not as dew
upon the summer grass
to give liberty and green

Perfection straineth out
the quality of mercy,
withers rapture at its

Before the battle is half begun,
cold probity thinks
it can’t be won, concedes the

I’ve handed in my notice,
given back my keys,
signed my severance check, I

Hints I could have taken:
Even the perfect chiseled form of
Michelangelo’s radiant David

the Venus de Milo
has no arms,
the Liberty Bell is

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.

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  • louis schmier

    For me, a perfectionist is someone who is looking on a moonless night in a darkened house for a black cat which is not there.

  • Carol Posey

    Cracks…..that is how the light gets in (Leonard Cohen)

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  • Parker J. Palmer

    It’s hard to find the words required to express how I feel about such an thoroughgoing and incisive character analysis based on 40 lighthearted words—the word-count of the first paragraph of my piece. And all for free! I will try to do what you suggest, Karen, but I’m not sure I have the intelligence, wisdom, and sheer courage to do it. I’m thankful that you’ve given me an example of what the world looks like from “outside my bubble” so I can make a clear choice about my preferred worldview. (P.S. This post took me an hour to write.)

  • Parker J. Palmer

    And also to you.

  • Gabby

    In my work I often see teenagers feeling pushed to excel in terms of metrics of dubious value, students who retake tests, for example, simply to raise their scores from 96% to 100%. One substantial risk to young perfectionists, or to youngsters of parents who demand perfection of them, is that students may come to shy away from challenges at which perfection cannot be assured. Perfectionism steals the love from the undertaking and biases the youngster against adventure.

    Perfectionists themselves lose out on the joy of what they have learned or attained that was not perfect. Those who hold others to standards of perfection may not only deprive their loved ones of well-earned satisfaction but also cheat themselves of the joy of appreciating what these others have, in fact, accomplished or done well.

    [There is no novelty in these thoughts, I know. I am just writing narrative progress reports again].