The Spirituality of Imperfection

[Here’s another talk I prepared for our weekly parents’ Alanon meeting.]

A friend and neighbor recently gifted Andrea and me with the book “The Spirituality of Imperfection” by Ernest Kutz and Katherine Ketcham (Bantam, 1992).  Our friend has been in alcohol recovery for some decades, and also knows the illness from the sober parent side in Alanon.  The book is not sanctioned by AA or Alanon, but much of it is about how the 12-step recovery movement is fundamentally a spirituality of imperfection.

The authors first draw a distinction between spirituality and religion.  Their bias is clearly on the side of the fluid, flexible, more loosely organized path of spirituality, with no defined ministers, rabbis or priests.

They retell the story of how Bill W and his associates discovered a simple, but effective way to stop drinking by coming together regularly to admit their alcoholism, and their powerlessness in overcoming that addiction.  A number of participants in those early AA circles had tried the path of traditional religion to achieve sobriety.  Most of them had failed.  There was however a shared sense that some greater spiritual power was needed to achieve sobriety.  The mutual caring and support generated within the group of alcoholics provided some of the needed efficacy, but additional inspiration and practice was needed.  That greater efficacy was eventually found within the adapted practices of the Oxford Movement.  That movement itself was soon regarded as too churchy and religious, yet the 12-step practice derived from the Oxford Movement remains as the spiritual foundation of recovery.

The essence of the spirituality of imperfection lies in the acceptance of broken-ness.  The authors point to some ancient Greek and Roman pottery in which no attempt is made to fix or hide the cracks.  As with some “broken” ancient sculptures, that imperfection has now been accepted as an inherent part of the pottery’s beauty and grace.

Rather than lament the cracks, the spirituality of imperfection accepts and even embraces them.  One of its mantras is:  “God comes through the wound”.  Another is: “The crack is what allows the light to enter.”  The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart preached that to experience the fullness of God, a person needed first to descend into the core of their most wounded self.  Out of that experience of lostness and woundedness would come the real need for a higher spiritual power that would free the person from the prison of isolation and self-involvement.

In my work as a counselor, I’ve long noticed the many ways in which I and others create obstacles to our own happiness.  One of those obstacles is what I call “the idealized self-image”.  It occurs almost universally as a result of early life experiences in which we felt like failures, defeated and vulnerable after experiencing loss, disappointment, inadequacy.  A desperate, inexperienced part of ourselves acts to prop ourselves up by constructing a strong self-defense so that we will never have to suffer defeat again. We create a false self that must always be strong and in control.  But life is such that no one can really be strong and in control all the time.  Because we hold on to this idealized sense of self, we suffer an additional layer of pain and guilt every time life fails to turn out as planned.  We simply cannot meet our own idealized standards, and punish ourselves needlessly.

As parents, we all want what is best for our children, and are willing to go to great lengths to protect and defend them.  This basic instinct, however, can contribute to a kind of false idealization of who we ought to be as parents.  In many of our cases here, our children went astray with alcohol, drugs, or have various and sundry mental and emotional illnesses.  When we have internalized a sense of idealized parenthood as our model, we inevitably fall short. We desperately try to solve problems that we didn’t cause, can’t control, can’t cure, and yet frequently contribute to either by our denial or by our codependency.

The spirituality of imperfection can provide some relief here, as it has to our brothers and sisters in AA.  One of AA’s informal sayings is that religion is for people who want to avoid hell while spirituality is for those who have already been there.  Another AA saying is that religion and therapy might help us find the causes of our problems, but only spirituality offers real forgiveness.

Our closing words in Alanon acknowledge that “we aren’t perfect”.  As parents of wayward children and grown adults, we’ve all committed a plenitude of errors.  But if we stay long enough in the program, we learn that our false sense of perfectionism only adds to the suffering.  As we learn to focus more on ourselves and our own wants and needs, we let down our defenses and allow ourselves to be more fully ourselves, more fully human.  We don’t have to be perfect to be open and loving parents to our offspring in need.  And as we learn to have more healthy boundaries, our own lives have an opportunity to be renewed.  Our own mental and emotional health then allows us to be more honest and compassionate with our family members.

“Progress not perfection” is another important slogan in recovery.  The spirituality of imperfection is what enables us to acknowledge, accept and embrace who we are right now, no matter what life is bringing our way.

John Bayerl, 1/29/2018

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