“Be perfect.” Be perfect, he says! But in almost the same breath he has just guaranteed our imperfection, our failure. It’s probably the most startlingly original thing Jesus ever said, and troubling. “Love your enemies.” Love your enemies. We can guarantee falling down repeatedly on this score. Most of us most of the time fail to sustain feelings of charity toward our enemies. And not only our true enemies, but also our familiars who can be so damned irritating! Be perfect, he says. But we’re bound to fail.
Could there possibly be a connection between failing and being perfect? Paradoxical as it may seem, I think so. Failure is a way forward toward perfection. Perfection or completion is, spiritually speaking, something out there before us we are on the way to. We’re all only somewhere on the way. Perfection, at least in this earthly existence, is an ever-receding horizon, always out of reach.
But we are on this trajectory. To grow, to expand into the fullness of our being, to grow into our completion, our perfection, requires failure. This is the great paradox of the spiritual life: we need a daily dose of failure.
How does this work? If we own our imperfections, our failures, our incompleteness, we can begin to accept the imperfections, the incompleteness, the failures of others. A daily dose of our own failure, taken with a glass of patience and understanding, can take us to that place where we can at least begin to love our enemies.
We may not be able to feel charitably toward our enemies, but we can at least begin to move in that direction. In recognizing our own failure to love, we can begin to have compassion for others who fail to love. My failure to love my enemy can give me insight into my enemy’s failure to love me. Acknowledging my own failure, I can begin to have compassion on the failure of others. We can, in a sense, recognize something of ourselves in the “enemy”. And if warm fuzzies are out of reach at the emotional level, we can at least determine to do no harm.
This process, this dynamic process of recognizing our common humanity, our common frailty, can lead us into a more expansive way of thinking. A more expansive way of thinking that is not entirely self-bound, that is not entirely self-referential. By recognizing how similar my failure to love is to my enemy’s failure to love, I begin to see that we are in the same boat, we are suffering the same malady, the same universal malady. I may not be capable of warm fuzzies toward my enemy, but I can at least begin to respect his or her dignity as a human being. I can at least begin to see that we are probably more alike than we would want to think.
Our own failure to love, then, can be a way forward to greater compassion and greater humility. And greater compassion and humility are the way forward to completion, fullness of life, perfection. To greater love—maybe even as far as loving the enemy. It’s a dynamic process of growth, fluid and dynamic; and some backsliding is inevitable
But Jesus’ call to perfection and in nearly the same breath setting standards that guarantee imperfection is a keen insight. Failure to love can, if we are so disposed, actually help us to grow in love. Failure to love opens the door to humility. Humility opens the door to compassion. Compassion opens the door to love. And love opens the door to that expansiveness of life that is the goal of our existence—our completion, our perfection.
Have you had your daily dose of failure? If not, there’s still time…
On another note and in another key: what I’m saying works not only at the individual level, but at the corporate, even national level. Our country has failed miserably these last few years. We have certainly not loved our enemies. We’ve lost a war we began under false pretenses. We’ve failed—not only in Iraq, but in many other places and in countless ways. The Middle East quagmire is just the worst of it.
But if we, as a nation, can own our failures and accept them in humility, it will be our salvation. We will never be able to make full restitution for the disaster we have visited on the world–that, too, will be a failure. And a source of humility.
We desperately need the vocabulary of repentance in our national discourse. Words like failure, contrition, remorse, humility, restitution, “we were wrong”, “we’re sorry”,—this vocabulary needs to make its way into our public discourse. And soon. Our failures may yet be the salvation of this country. Our failure to love our enemies may yet open the door to humility—and humility opens the door to many good things.
The world is waiting.
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