Emerson Fosdick, one of the great voices of 20th Century American
Protestantism and one of the great preachers of his day, once said:
“Existence is what you find. Life is what you create.” In a similar
vein, I once saw a poster in a card shop which showed a little cabin,
all alone in a clearing in the woods—and it proclaimed to all who saw
it: “Whatever your lot in life, build something on it!”
broadly speaking, the overriding ethos of Western civilization. We are
put here on this Earth to accomplish something, to leave behind
something tangible when we’re gone.
I love Longfellow’s words that
we shared earlier in the service: all that talk of “working in these
halls of time” and building today “strong and sure”. They are words
that ring true within me. We want to build something upon this Earth,
leave behind some evidence that we were here when we’re gone. There’s
nothing at all wrong with that.
But sometimes, I think that we get
too hung up on thinking that we have to get it all right, that we have
to do it perfectly. Or at least, that it has to seem that way.
in case you haven’t noticed, perfection is not part of the
specifications list of the standard human model. It’s not in our human
job description, at least not as almost all of us actually do the job
of being human.
Yet, still, we have convinced ourselves that we
have to try. We have to pretend that there is such a thing as human
perfection and that we are it—or damn close. Still, we strive to
maintain the illusion of having it all together, all the time-- even
when we know, deep down inside, that it’s really just an act. That is,
sadly, the way we go through life, so very often; I think we do
ourselves real psychological and spiritual (and sometimes, even
physical) harm in the process.
Sometimes, perhaps, we are in the
same boat with that little boy who, after arriving at school one
morning, remembered that he was supposed to have brought his birth
certificate: “Oh no,” he exclaimed, totally distraught, “I forgot my
excuse for being born!”
Maybe some of us feel (sometimes at least)
that we, too, need an excuse for having been born; or, that we have to
“prove” that we deserve to be here; that all of our i’s have to be
dotted, and all the our t’s need to be crossed, and all those ducks
need to be in a row, in order for us prove ourselves “worthy” of a
sense of gladness at the very fact of our existence. We have forgotten,
it seems, that living on this Earth is not something we’ve earned
through any of our own efforts. It’s a free and amazing gift of grace,
pure and simple, and our calling is to get on with the actual living of
our lives, and not merely play acting at them.
There lies the
great snare of striving, at all costs, to keeping up the appearance of
perfection. “There is tragedy in perfection,” wrote the 20th Century
philosopher George Santayana, “because the universe in which perfection
arises is itself imperfect.”
For we are imperfect, each one of us.
That’s just the way we are made. “Everything God has made has a crack
in it,” Emerson once said. But how often we seem to run from this fact
of our existence.
Where does this need for keeping up appearances
come from? In his book, How Good Do We Have to Be?, the
well-known rabbi Harold Kushner asks just that question, and offers a
few possible explanations:
“Did we get it from our parents, who
hoped we would make up for the empty spaces in their own lives?”
Kushner asks. “From teachers who took for granted everything we did
right and focused on every mistake? From religious leaders who told us
that Adam and Eve broke one rule and were punished forever?”
women get the message of perfection from movies and fashion ads,
featuring actresses and models with figures they can’t hope to match?
Do men get it from relentless pressure to sell more, to earn more, and
from a society that makes fun of losers in the Super Bowl for being
only the second best football team in the world?”
How sad it is,
Rabbi Kushner points out, that organizers of the National Spelling Bee
every year have to provide a “comfort room” where children can go to
cry, to yell, to scream, to be comforted and consoled when they
misspell a single word and are eliminated from competition. These are
young people who have just spelled dozens of words that neither you nor
(most certainly not) I could ever hope to spell—who have made it to the
National Finals for God’s sake—an amazing accomplishment! That’s
something in which they ought to feel genuine pride— why should they
need to feel awful about missing one single word?
adds that, to this day, he can’t see the word “judgment” without
remembering that it was the word he got wrong in the finals of his
elementary school spelling bee more than sixty years ago! I’m sure
that, if we gave it a little thought, we could all come up “judgments”
of our own-- with some momentary, really insignificant misstep that we
made somewhere along the line, that we still carry around with us; that
still pops up to haunt us from time to time; that still scars us, in
some deep, indelible way. We all have our own “Buckner blooper” down in
our souls somewhere, and we never know when they’re going to pop up and
haunt us. So we vow, it will never happen again. And we live our lives
guarding against something like it occurring again.
Of course, none
of this makes any rational sense whatsoever. If there is one thing we
all should have learned by now in our 36—or 57—or 65—or 80-something--
years on this planet, it’s that sometimes the veil is going to fall,
and our human imperfections will lie exposed for all the world to see.
And you know what? For most of us, almost all of the time, they’re no
big deal. With the exception of those relatively few Really Bad Things
that people sometimes do, most of us, most of the time, are drawing
from that same, common pool of screw ups, dysfunctions, and bad
judgments. Failed marriages; family estrangements; running up too much
debt; giving into our baser instincts; not being as caring or
compassionate as we should have-- challenges we face, certainly;
sometimes, even real tragedies in our lives. But not reasons, really,
for us to hang our heads in shame and exile ourselves from the land of
the living; nor are they reasons to hide who we really are from others;
because, in one way or another, I would bet that almost all of us have
been there, or someplace similar.
If you think of all the
human interactions of which we are part—the countless interpersonal
transactions we complete in the course of a day—there’s no surprise
that, inevitably, we’re going to mess some of them up.
that we complete 200 interactions in the course of a day: every single
business transaction; every social interaction; every “hello” and
“excuse me”; every “because I said so”; every “get your feet off the
coffee table”. That would mean that we face at least 73,000
interactions in the course of a year. Which means that, if we only mess
up 1% of them (and 99% is a good grade to strive for in most human
endeavors, and it really is a good thing, I think, that most of us
aren’t brain surgeons or air traffic controllers or head of the Federal
Reserve), that means that we’ll each make 730 mistakes in the course of
a year. We can make 730 mistakes a year-- and still get an A+!
not to screw up too badly is a pretty good goal to seek. But it’s
hardly perfection. It’s 730 reasons to feel regret; 730 times to wish
we’d done it differently; 730 opportunities to know that we’re not
perfect; 730 times to pick ourselves up, and try again.
at it differently, too, those 730 mistakes can also be a source of
great hope. As Leo Buscaglia once said, “I pledge not to demand that
you be perfect, until I am perfect myself. So, for now, we’re both
We don’t have to look at our imperfections as Mount
Everests we have to scale to prove ourselves worthy, or as
insurmountable Berlin Walls that separate us from one another. Instead,
we can see our imperfections as bridges that connect us to one
another—pathways of our shared humanity—common ground that we can use
as a foundation for sharing our stories with one another, and
comforting one another, and learning from one another.
willing to share openly our human imperfections, without shame and
without fear, is the basis of true compassion; and compassion (and the
deep humility which it ought to engender) form the basis of a living
Rabbi Kushner also wrote: “I believe in a God who
knows how complicated human life is, how difficult it is to be a good
person at all times, and who expects not a perfect life, but an honest
effort at a good one.”
Should we expect any more from one another, then, than a decent effort at a decent life?
we are called upon to make that decent effort. We are called to try to
live up to our highest ideals. Reminding ourselves that we aren’t
perfect is not the same as saying that we ought not to try to do our
best. As gifted, talented, creative human beings (which we all are, or
have the potential to be, in so many diverse and amazing ways), we are
called upon to be true to the best that is within us. It can be a handy
excuse, I suppose, to say, “Well, I can’t be perfect, I can’t do it
all, so I’m not going to do anything to better myself, my family, my
community, my world.” That’s a cop-out people take sometimes, too.
it’s hardly the way to lead a full and worthwhile life, either. There
is a vast difference between being a perfectionist (which is not
healthy, in my opinion) and a lifelong striving for excellence (which
is certainly commendable).
Even though the boundary between the
two can get fuzzy at times, we do have inside of us these internal
barometers which help us to know the difference. Call it conscience, or
intuition, or instinct, or the voice of God in the soul, or what have
you; if we listen to it, and use it to help us weigh and measure our
actions, then we can discern what’s going on. This internal barometer
can help to remind us—to remind ourselves-- when we’re “keeping
it real” and when we’re play acting (because sometimes, even that’s not
as easy as you might think). Very simply, real living and play acting
feel different from one another, deep down inside.
Real living is willing to show that it can be wrong sometimes, that it has made mistakes, that it still has so much to learn.
Keeping up appearances has to be right all the time; its entire reason for being is not to let the fašade drop.
Real living is willing to take risks.
Keeping up appearance is based on fear; it clings to the well-worn, well rehearsed pathway, though all else be lost.
Real living feels empowering.
Keeping up appearances feels like anger and frustration.
Real living is spontaneous.
Keeping up appearances is about control.
Real living is accepting.
Keeping up appearance is judgmental—not just of others, but just as much of ourselves.
Real living goes forth in confidence.
Keeping up appearances clings to the rock of its own self-doubt.
Real living is all about going with the flow.
Keeping up appearances is standing still like Atlas, holding on our shoulders a world of false premises.
up appearances is a Potemkin village of a life, a false fašade behind
which lurks nothing of real and abiding value. It’s a stop sign, which
seeks to control the wild highway of life
Real living is, in sum, an ongoing, never-ending journey of heart, and mind, and soul.
lives of ours are never, truly, like Game Seven of the World Series,
where there’s just one winner. Nor are they the Super Bowl—where
there’s only one “best team”, and everyone else is a loser.
Life is always Opening Day of another season of our living, another step along the way of our great pilgrimage.
we be sustained by hope as we continue our journey, and may we find
courage to travel unafraid. May we delight in the presence of our
fellow pilgrims, every step of the way. And may we share openly and
honestly the gifts of who we are with our fellow creatures in this