© Allysson McDonald 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 7, 2011

When I was planning this service, I decided to place the interlude after the meditation without really knowing what either was going to be. Then when I put the words for the meditation together this week I had a moment of concern when I remembered I'd done that - so I went and checked what piece Mark was playing to make sure that it would work - it was perfect! Once again improvising - mine - worked out! Thanks, Mark, for choosing such a perfect piece for today's service. Some of you may remember the words that Linda Creed penned and Whitney Houston sang to that stirring melody:

"The greatest love of all
Is easy to achieve.
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all."

She reminds us to show children all the beauty they possess inside, and to give them a sense of pride. Unfortunately, at a younger and younger age our youth are doubting themselves and finding that they can't live up to the artificial standards set for them.

The idea for this sermon came from a blog post that my 17 year old son, Greg, linked to on Facebook last fall, around the time when the media was focused on teen suicide. The blog by Dan Pearce, author of the book The Real Dad Rules is called "Dan and Noah's Single Dad Laughing". But he starts out this particular article with the words:

"As a warning, the following post was written in complete desperation. I have recently learned some very sobering truths from people that I love dearly. These truths have set in motion a quest within me to do whatever I can to make a change. Today is not geared at funny."

The title of the article that day was "The Disease Called Perfection" and the caption under the picture of the stunningly beautiful woman clad in her underwear is "Perfection: A Beautiful fairytale that always leaves you hating yourself." Rather than evoking laughter, this blog brought tears to my eyes.

I think the blog was about how we fail to meet our own ridiculous standards and keep that our secret shame. And that impacts others around us who then have the false impression that everyone else is fine, so they feel worthless/ashamed. Pearce proceeds to give many examples of people living lies and hating themselves for it, pretending their lives are perfect, and sometimes punishing themselves because they really aren't.

One problem is that our culture presents us with so many images of perfection. The kids had a pretty good idea of what it take to be perfect, and so do we - slim but not skinny, tall but not too tall, intelligent, witty and wise but not a nerd, a good cook, house keeper, bread winner, decorator, athlete, public speaker.... is there anything that we are not expected to be good at?

You may recall that there was a rash of teen suicides across the bridge in Palo Alto in 2009 which were attributed to kids feeling like they couldn't make the grade - literally. In response to an article about these tragic events, one commenter said in part:

" a tutor I saw an extraordinary number of students for whom there could be absolutely no room for even minor failure. The pressure they had been under in high school really astonished me ... I had students ... sob on my shoulder after getting a B+. I can sure as hell see how students in that kind of environment might feel themselves driven to suicide... The students I met from that milieu were expected to be, for all intents and purposes, completely perfect - and they expected no less of themselves."

On a personal note, a friend's daughter in 8th grade attempted suicide a few months ago. No one's saying much (I'm supposed to keep what I know a secret), but from what I can tell, she's unhappy because she doesn't do well in school. She was getting C's! Somehow in this Valley we've got the idea that all our kids will be straight 'A' students or they will be unable to get into college and that will be the end of the road. They also have to be musicians and atheltes and look like Lands End models!

But we know that it's not only the kids who suffer from this "disease" - as our single dad blogger points out. He goes through a long list of people who hate themselves because of it: people in a destructive relationship who pretend that their partner is perfect, people who have an addiction or mental illness and try to cover it up, people who are drowning in debt because they have to appear as though they can afford all those luxuries, people who are struggling to be good parents and act like everything is fine.

At the end of his "sample" he says:

"I could go on. This is all a small sampling of the disease called "Perfection". You have brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, extended family members, neighbors, friends, and children who are ALL these things, yet none of us will ever know. "Perfection" is a hideous monster with a really beautiful face. And chances are you're infected. The good news is, there is a cure. Be real."

He suggests that you embrace that you have weakness, because everybody does; embrace that your body is not perfect, because nobody's is; "embrace that you have things you can't control: We all have a list of them."

He announces that this is your wake-up call:

He goes on to say: "The cure is so simple. Be real." He asserts that if you can be bold about your weaknesses, you will change other people's lives. If you can "be honest about who you actually are, others will begin to be their actual selves around you. Once you cure yourself of the disease, others will come to you, asking if they can just "talk". People are desperate to talk. Some of the most "perfect" people around you will tell you of some of the greatest struggles going on. Some of the most "perfect" people around you will break down in tears as they tell you how difficult life is for them. Turns out, some of the most "perfect" people around us are human beings after all, and are dying to talk to another human being about it." He says, "You'll love them for it. And you'll love yourself even more."

This is why I think that the "It Gets Better" video project was genius. It took bullying out of the shadows by having very successful people who happen to be gay, telling their stories of how they were mistreated in high school, and how they hated it, and maybe even themselves. Some of them wanted to die. But they survived, and went on to lives they enjoy with friends and lovers and families who love them. They knew that, as a teenager in trouble, it seems like you're the only one whose life is hard, you're the only one who doesn't fit in, and that somehow you deserve what you're getting. By telling their stories, these older adults said, "No, this is not your fault and you are not alone... some pretty cool people have been in your very shoes. Get help, and know that it gets better."

I think that Pearce's blog is about how we fail to meet our own false standards and keep that our secret shame. And that impacts others around us who then have the false impression that everyone else is fine, so they feel worthless/ashamed. The idea that we need to get real struck something in me. I believe that telling our stories is an essential spiritual practice. I once read a description of a church as a spiritual community of witnesses - a place where we hold one another's stories and uphold one another's lives. One of the definitions of sanctuary is a place of refuge and protection. Is it a place where we can be real? Can the congregation be our training ground?

Misssion Peak sometimes does this. One example is in our small group ministry groups, where people get to know each other well and find that they can be real with one another. Another example is the Safe Haven Project that Doug Marshall is working on, to help it be safer for GLBTQ teens to be out.

A more specific example is that at a recent "Couple's Retreat", the facilitators shared that there was a time their marriage nearly ended - that marriage can be hard, and takes work. It was reassuring to know that other people's relationships aren't always straight out of a fairy tale! Sometimes it seems like everyone else's relationship is great, and that you must be a failure because you are having a hard time in yours. Sharing appropriately about our problems and how we work through them can be such a help to others.

I think it is also one of the cornerstones of the work that our community minister Rev. Barbara Meyers does. At Reaching Across, one of the programs she supports, people with emotional problems and illnesses help each other and help themselves by offering mutual support. Everyone in the program is encouraged to share responsibility for the program by taking an active part And Barbara's TV show has folks sharing publicly their stories of mental illness. Mental health issues have always carried such stigma that it is something usually hidden away, but that can make things worse. Finding a safe place to share their stories, and making mental illness more public can make all the difference.

The issue of perfectionism also came up at the leadership's start-up workshop last fall. It was suggested that the very idea that we all need to meet some unwritten standard prevents people who are different (like the mentally ill) or just new folks, from feeling like they could ever fully participate. It looks like those in leadership carry it off so easily that others can be intimidated. It's important to share that writing sermons is really scary, although I do it anyway. And that several of our leaders have struggled with getting up in front to talk, but find that with practice and support it gets easier. And it's also important to recognize that leadership and responsibility can be shared. We all have different talents and can help each other out. And we don't all have to do things the same way. (Boy, I am working on that lesson as I take over as the chair of Membership from Pat Rodgers!)

I realize that in some circles, I'm pretty much "you go first" - I'll be real if they are; you know, not wanting to lose face. But by saving face we really do lose something even more precious. How do we get started? Being real can be very scary!

Some of you know I'm an InterPlayer. InterPlay is about using improvisational techniques to reconnect to the wisdom of our bodies. It encourages storytelling, but it also lets us know it's okay to be where we are, and that often moving forward is best done incrementally, in baby steps. InterPlay also teaches us that whatever we do, we ought to play. Most of the time we take ourselves far too seriously. If I had more time, we could do a game where we tell each other some secret about not being perfect - in Jibberish! Some people just find it silly to speak in Jibberish, and that's okay - having fun is good! But some have commented that even though they are not speaking aloud when they share something in Jibberish it can feel kind of cathartic to say something that bothers you out loud (even though no one can understand you)! Its a start.

I leave you with 2 quotes:

The first is from another blog, by Gail Brenner, "A Flourishing Life."

"The opportunity is here, in this very moment, for happiness, peace, expansion, clarity, aliveness. There is no need to keep living in this secret hell. If you feel you are flawed and lacking, own it. Learn how to work intelligently with this experience. Ground yourself in the truth, and let the world see your shining face."

And the second from a book called Normal Gets You Nowhere by Kelly Cutrone:

"I think it's absolutely essential for you to know you are sacred, magical, and special, to nurture that truth and unleash it into the world."


"I went out to find a friend and could not find one there. I went out to be a friend, and friends were everywhere." [anonymous]

Dan Pearce says, "Somebody who is being a friend doesn't spread "Perfection".
Somebody who is being a friend spreads "Real".
Then, and only then, can we all grow together."


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