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Chasing Perfection and Finding Fragility

February 1, 2023
Kate Bowler
Kate Bowler

Kate Bowler knows a bit about life’s fragility. The author, podcast host, and professor said she examined the popular pursuit of perfection but found it unhelpful when she was diagnosed seven years ago with stage 4 cancer. So she encourages her readers and podcast followers to let go of the idea that with a bit more effort or the right product or process they can achieve perfection. Instead, she said, face life’s difficulties and allow yourselves and the people around you to have limits and vulnerabilities.

In her Jan. 27 presentation at Calvin University’s January Series, Bowler began by speaking about living through a pandemic the past couple of years.

“We’re in a weird moment right now, I think, where we’ve had years of that ‘fits and starts’ feeling. We might feel not just tired but kind of weary. . . . We might wish we could have some kind of ‘reset’ button, a cosmic do-over for all we’ve lost over the last couple of years physically, emotionally, spiritually,” she said.

As we emerge from the pandemic and start to feel like we’re catching our breath, Bowler added, we may be tempted to reframe the experience. More aware now of the fragility of life and of the structures in our lives, she said, we might tend toward either giving up or seeing the difficulties as lessons on trying harder.

To illustrate the second reaction, Bowler invited her audience to try to remember the beginning of the pandemic: “The American middle class seemed to experience just a surge of collective resolve,” as if to say, “‘You’re not trapped at home in the middle of a world-remaking earth plague. Everyone’s just cutting down on their commute time. They’re picking up old hobbies, spending time with loved ones.’ [Ironically] there were just silver linings everywhere.”

Addressing the university student experience specifically, Bowler noted that students were encouraged to dismiss the loss of time with friends, access to classrooms and libraries, and instead to welcome the possibilities of technology by taking classes via online conferencing.

“Miss the athletic center or freedom and fun and friends and activities? What about the experience you could have sculpting a beach body from free weights you found in your parents’ garage? Count your blessings. Be more present. Haven’t we always wanted to spend more time with our families?” she said, citing some of the messages that students and young people were receiving from the broader culture as the pandemic and its restrictions wore on.

We realize today, suggested Bowler, that we have been changed by what we went through during the pandemic.

“And here we are now – trying to try,” she said. “And I think that’s the very difficult-to-describe truth about survival: how we are kindled by a feeling that we want to be different from what we were before. We are reaching for a hope that things don’t have to be as they’ve always been.”

We want to be more kind, more aware of justice and policy, more empathetic, outgrowing our worst selves, suggested Bowler. We also worry that we should be different by now, she added.

Quoting the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca, Bowler noted, “This space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all, save a very few, find life at the end, just as we are getting ready to live.”

Sensing the speed of life, Bowler suggested, we seek transformation. And when we don’t see it, we get frustrated. Trying feels harder than it did before.

Bowler invited the audience to examine the idea of perfectibility – the feeling that we should be “better.” American culture, she said, has had many theories on how to build that perfect life, from the Puritans to Benjamin Franklin to the 19th-century new thought movements to today’s culture of self-help books and manifesting.

We’ve been sold different iterations of the same story, repackaged as secrets from stoics to ancestral spirits to historic leaders, said Bowler.

“Think and grow rich, find your soulmate, run with wolves. . . . We can have it all if we just learn how to conquer our limits,” she said.

And if you check your social-media feed, Bowler suggested, you’ll find that the debate has already been settled: yes, you can be perfect. All these people on countless sites already have achieved it, and it’s a bit embarrassing that you haven’t yet.

Our culture speaks its expectations through our family and friends, she asserted. It’s implied that you need to have your life figured out, a perfect and likable personality, a happy and respectable job, perfect relationship skills, and all tasks caught up. But . . . then we get sick, and tired. We cheat, or someone else does. We can’t solve our friends’ problems; we can’t find someone to spend life with; we can’t become who we want to be. We wonder if our dream is pointless or fading or beyond our grasp.

“We have a sense that we want to be happier, healthier, more grounded. And then we’re not. We’re living under the weight of the perfectibility paradigm. It is that ‘Try harder,’ ‘Do better,’ ‘Other people are already at the finish line’ sense. We’ve drunk too deeply from the wells of our modern self-help culture.”

In spiritual terms, said Bowler, we’ve looked at the examined life, at sanctification, which she describes as the idea that we can grow closer to God and become more fully human in doing so – and we’ve turned it into a capitalistic to-do list.

Bowler suggests that there’s a place between the poles of everything and nothing. “Perfection is impossible, but transformation isn’t. We can change a little if we really want to. And we see the truth of it from the moment we wake up, as we seek to find enough momentum to sustain a life that is never perfect but is somehow good enough.”

The phrase “your best life now” is in wide use in our culture. Begun by televangelist Joel Osteen, it quickly went wild, with books and podcasts using it for every topic from food to crafts to travel to employment, while celebrities of every type used it to project the perfection of their lives.

The wellness industry generates $12 billion each year defined by this certain theology of perfection, said Bowler. The promise is that we can organize, budget, love, feed, and believe ourselves well enough to be whole. The self becomes a project to conquer. This idea is so widespread that in 1984 the New York Times gave up and created a separate list for self-help books in order to give other literary genres a chance to top the best-seller list.

When the pandemic started, said Bowler, she began to track people’s reading habits according to purchase. It seemed like a great time to acknowledge that we can’t be young, beautiful, rich, and perfect forever by finding some magic formula. But she found she was wrong; the perfection myth is a fever dream, promising infinite progress and unlimited choices. People grasp at it but eventually find a dead end.

“So, my loves,” she said, “if you’ve ever felt like a failure for not being able to fix your life or master your life, then welcome. Welcome to the perfectibility paradigm, where life makes it very difficult to do the kind of thing that you’re doing with each other, which is to tell the truth about life without perfection.”

People in this group are familiar with befores and afters, she said. There are a lot of afters: after diagnosis, changed friendships, people who disappointed you, divorce, the pandemic, the death of a loved one, or a lay-off. And that’s the life we’re in now: the life after.

Bowler said she remembers the day she was told she had stage 4 cancer and needed to go to the hospital right away. Her first thought was sort of an argument: “But I have a son.”

The next, she said, was feeling that a life she really loved was over. The diagnosis came after a few months of unexplained symptoms and unproductive doctor visits.

“You have that sort of strange landslide feeling,” Bowler recalled. “I had refused to leave a doctor’s office until they ordered a new test – and then they did – and there I was. And I remember thinking, ‘I really had something for a minute.’ Sometimes there’s the life we want, and then there’s the life we have.”

Positivity thinking today suggests that if you think positively and construct your beliefs in a certain way and speak it out loud, your words will boomerang: send out positive thoughts, and good will come back. Send out negative thoughts, and bad will come back. The “good vibes” culture is insidious in American culture today, said Bowler. “People don’t pray; they send out good vibes.”

Bowler suggested that we can see this when we say something hard to someone, such as telling them we’re brutally depressed or have an incurable illness. Many people can’t receive it; they will suggest you check your mindset or tell you not to put that out into the universe, or that they’re believing God for something.

“In those moments,” she said, “what you’re feeling is the social cost of a cultural prohibition against negative speech and the depth of American cultural assumptions about the power of the mind. What it’s doing to us is making it harder and harder for us to speak honestly about our realities.”

Positivity of this kind has become a form of false resilience, said Bowler. “It’s forcing us into a kind of double tyranny, where it is creating positivity as the burden that we endure in the midst of grief. And that is the great American magic trick: the way we transform tragedy into failure. Because, as we know, bodies age. Diseases strike. Love slips out of our hands. We are human again today.” Bowler suggested that setting aside the burden of positivity is an act of self-compassion.

A word Bowler uses to describe another view of life is “precarity” – being controlled by the forces of other things (in line with  the word precarious). It’s that feeling that we understand now, better than we did even a few years ago, that life is uncertain. We are one accident, disease, missed opportunity, or virus away from losing things we can’t get back.

Roman Catholic writer Dorothy Day said that precarity is not the thing to be overcome; it’s the thing we have to live alongside. Our precarity isn’t the problem, said Bowler. We shouldn’t be trying to solve it. It makes us need one another more. We don’t need to be embarrassed about how we don’t have it all together; rather, we can see ourselves as on a spectrum between invincibility and fragility. And if you’re in a season of fragility, it’s okay.

“Now is a lovely nonembarrassed time to reach out and get the help and interdependence that you really deserve,” she said. “The times of our great fragility are God’s great A-game. God loves us. I would not have known a certain kind of love if I just hadn’t been so desperate.”

And when you’re feeling invincible and doing well, it’s a good time to be durable and to help carry others, said Bowler. Show up for people; allow them to know you’re not scared of their tragedy.

Often, however, we’re somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, moving in between extremes.

Quoting The Princess Bride, Bowler noted that her philosophy borrows from the protagonist, Westley, who says: “‘Life is pain. . . . Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.’ (Or has recently discovered essential oils.)”

After her diagnosis, Bowler said, her psychologist gave her useful advice from long-haul hikers. New hikers overpack, worried about being prepared for all kinds of difficulties on the road. They’re already tired by the first stop. But when you know the road is longer than you hoped for, think, “What can I set down?”

Bowler passed the challenge along to her audience: “Is there anything we can set down? Standards of perfectionism? Exhausting positivity that’s stopping you from reaching out? Reach for what’s possible and set the rest down.”