We are all so “driven to distraction” and comfortable in denial that it takes a catastrophe to focus our attention on self-examination and problem solving.
Last week we were forced to confront our collective insanity acted out by a lone madman. Who should we blame? Was the madman’s paranoia a reflection of us or simply a brain disease, a thinking disorder that developed in a vacuum? Was he on the left or the right? Were his parents to blame or not?
The discussions were dizzying, all of them avoiding the truth of our collective responsibility.
We project onto our leaders our inner conflicts, our childish craving for a black-and-white, all-or-nothing reality, which would relieve us of the burden of our opposing inclinations. We demand good guys and bad guys. The bad guys represent all the things we don’t like about ourselves; the good guys re-enforce our image of perfection and blamelessness. The stronger the split within the more we polarize and blame “the other.” As Rabbi Heschel noted: “Some are guilty; all are responsible.”
Another casualty of our Addiction to Perfection was a 14-year old boy who bolted from a ball game, ran into a hotel and jumped off the roof. “He was the perfect child,” his grandparents said. …he was popular, good in sports, upbeat, showed no signs of distress. His Rabbi expressed the communal shock: “He was bright, upbeat and dependable and gave no indication he was seriously troubled… He was not the kind of person you would expect to have these feelings… Something went horribly wrong.”
What went wrong, I think, was this kid wasn’t allowed to feel bad or tell anyone about his doubts and fears. He was the carrier of his parents’ and grandparents’ vision of perfection, his spirit crushed by their expectations. “I’ll never live up to their requirements of me – no matter what I do. I’d rather jump than disappoint them.”
Our children are acting out our struggles within. If they are perfect we are absolved of our own imperfections. They carry the burden of their parents’ insecurity and self-doubt. The parental cop-out of “Do as I say, not as I do” says it all: What I can’t do for myself, I can do for you. I will shield you from discomfort or disappointment or doubt. You will be the Crown Prince or Princess of Perfection.
“The best and the brightest” suffer the most; their insides and outsides are most mismatched. They’ve done everything they were supposed to do (and more) and they still feel rotten inside. They perform without passion and strive without purpose.
Judaism is a program of recovery for addiction to perfection. All of our heroes are imperfect. The Torah is the story of our people’s struggle to submit their will to God’s Will, to act themselves into right thinking and being. Over and over they forget God’s directions, lose faith and gratitude and build “golden calves” to protect them from their fears and fill the hole of their separation from God.
Instead of calves we are building “golden children,” whom we worship.