Sunday 13 May 2012

What My Imperfect Mother Taught Me About Perfection

Chalice Lighting

We light this candle as a symbol of our faith.
By its light may our vision be illumined;
By its warmth may our fellowship be encouraged;
And by its flame may our yearnings for peace, justice and the life of the spirit be enkindled.


Reading: Mothers That Inspire

Lesson: What my Imperfect Mother Taught Me About Perfection

“The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good” What does this mean? Perfect is the enemy of good is an aphorism or proverb which is commonly attributed to Voltaire whose moral poem, La Bégueule, starts[1]

Dans ses écrits, un sàge Italien
Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.

(In his writings, a wise Italian
says that the best is the enemy of the good)

The moral is that perfectionism is contrary to a satisfactory competence. Aristotle, Confucius and other classical philosophers propounded the principle of the golden mean which counsels against extremism in general.[2] The Pareto principle or 80-20 rule explains this numerically. For example, it commonly takes 20% of the full time to complete 80% of a task while the last 20% takes 80% of the effort.[3] Achieving absolute perfection may be impossible and so, as increasing effort results in diminishing returns, further activity becomes increasingly inefficient. (Wikipedia)

Today I want to share with you some of the lessons I learned from my own mom, who was less than perfect, as we all are. In fact, she was downright dysfunctional. Her flaws and antics could have scarred me for life. But instead she raised a confident, thoughtful, caring, joyful person who is only somewhat dysfunctional (but who isn’t somewhat dysfunctional?). Her love for me was greater than that she had for herself. Out of her pain, somehow she managed to confer upon me the peace she could not feel. I am the Pheonix, arising from the ashes of my mother’s life.

What qualities do we think of when we hear the word “mother”? Usually love, and it is usually unconditional. Most of us think it is a mother’s job to provide unconditional love, that mother should put us before herself, not just providing our basic needs, but adding things to the mix, things like encouragement, cuddling, acceptance, forgiveness. In short, a mother should be a saint.

The ideal for love is this: Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful and endures through every circumstance. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NLT)

But how many of us are really That Good? I know I’m not. I know my mother wasn’t that good, either. I think she did truly love me in her own way, but it wasn’t always the way I thought she should love me. It certainly wasn’t any of the things in this verse from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, noble an ideal as it is. Few of us are That Good. Yet, somehow my mother imparted to me the strength and confidence that I would need in my own life, despite herself. Where do we get these ideas of how a mother “should” love?

I think in older times, when life was slower and more difficult, a mother’s main job was to make her children strong enough and skilled enough to work, to help support the family. Some still believe that a mother’s basic duty is met when she provides you a place to sleep and three square meals a day. In modern times, mother’s love is thought to include all the above-mentioned qualities, plus lessons, parties, overnights with friends, fun and expensive vacations, meals out, expensive prom dresses, iPods, and a great collection of material items. Plus, we expect mom and dad to pay for college.

Because the media helps form our opinions more than we know, and mostly the rich and famous make it to the magazine covers, we in the middle class think we are somehow required to provide for our children’s every need…no, let me rephrase that…every wish. God forbid our child should be the only one in school without the latest shoes or dress, or jewelry (remember the Izod shirts, Aigner purses, and add-a-bead necklaces that were popular in the 1980s?).

I never had many of the material things kids thought they should have. My mother was a single mom, divorced, and a musician, which meant feast or famine. It also meant she worked at night and slept much of the day, and would go into a rage if awakened while napping before a gig (I learned early to be quiet as a mouse!). I was frequently told that I would not be getting THAT and that THAT was not important, or I should pay for it myself. I never had a birthday party, couldn’t even have friends over because of the condition of the house. Sometimes I felt deprived, especially when I compared my life to other kids’. I bought my own clothes, my own bike, and my own train ticket to see my sister in Michigan. Mother was tight with the money and did not care about fashion trends. But truly, neither did I. I actually thought everyone looked silly walking around with the same hair, clothes, and jewelry. Didn’t they have any thought independence?

My mother was odd, to put it mildly, and I was often embarrassed by her. I know this is normal, but she was over the top! She suffered from depression and a variety of mental illnesses which made life unpredictable and often painful. You could call her eccentric. I called her other things.

My mother was a perfectionist when it came to music, but in almost all the practical aspects of life, she failed. I saw her striving for perfection and tried to emulate it, even though I knew that she failed more than she succeeded. This, somehow, never bothered me. I respected her for doing one thing exceedingly well. I have found through trial and error that perfection is rarely achievable, and that is OK. I wish Mother had understood this. It was one of the things that tormented her all her life.

It was not until after her death, when I had to write her memorial address, that I realized how much Mother had meant to me, what she had taught me, and what she had done for me. By depriving me of things I thought I needed, but didn’t, she taught me how to appreciate everything I get, so I am a happier person. By not buying things for me, I learned to take care of myself and husband my money. By being so unpredictable, I learned to remain strong-hearted, faithful, steady, and tenacious in the face of uncertainty. This almost certainly accounts for my strong marriage, even though my mother did not stay married to either of her husbands. (And it’s a good thing; they were abusive.) But you get my point.

My point is, a mother (or parent) does not have to be perfect to be good. She does not have to be the best example at all times. She might be a terrible example, and a child could learn from that what to avoid. She does not have to provide everything the child wants, or even some things people today would consider needs (such as karate lessons, music lessons, dance, gymnastics, etc.). By growing up without much, I learned to make do with what I have, whether that means keeping myself busy rather than choosing a more expensive entertainment alternative, or being happy with myself, without always having someone to pay attention to me… Well, okay, I never got that one down, but close! I learned to buy things second-hand, and so have come to appreciate the charm of gently used clothing, appliances, etc. What is an antique but something previously used and well cared for?

From my mother, I learned to appreciate the charm of the old, whether it was items or people. She loved antiques and had a story for every item in our house. Yet, she was one who would hold onto things until they crumbled. Me, I hold onto things but try to take care of them, yet some things slip out of my grasp. The older I get, the more I am able to see her in myself, (not in the way that makes you want to pull out your hair) but to be able to appreciate things others take for granted is one of the lessons I learned from this woman who hoarded things so badly that you could barely walk through the rooms. Her hubris taught me something, too, even if it meant learning to be humble to as not to alienate others as I saw her do. Her pride in me taught me to be proud of who I am. Without meaning to, she taught me more from her mistakes than she could have by being perfect.

I don’t mean to suggest my mother was all bad. She was talented and intelligent, curious and vigorous, honest to a fault in some ways. She bore pain I have no way of understanding, yet she worked hard as a musician to earn a living doing what she did best, even though it took a toll on her mental and physical health. She probably never knew what an effect she had on me, and I wish I could tell her now: Mom, you did a good job.

Today is a day to remember and honor those we call Mother, whether it is a single father, a stepmother, foster mother, grandparent, or good friend. One who saw the best in us and taught us to see the best in ourselves. Today, I honor my mother and pray that wherever she is, she knows how much I love and respect her, how glad I am that she was not perfect, and how happy I am to have known her.


Song: “Mother Spirit”


May you go forth today thankful for what you have and grateful for those who have loved you, even if they are not perfect. Perfection leaves no room for growth.


Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.

~Leonard Cohen

Joys and Concerns


April Keating
Service Leader