Friday, March 7, 2008

From Loving Perfection to Perfecting Love: A Matter of Acceptance

Many years ago, out of the blue, my girlfriend asked me if I liked her . . . body part. This created an immediate dilemma. I had never really thought about whether I liked it. As far as I was concerned she was a beautiful woman. But once she posed the question, I didn't know what to say. I looked for some standard by which to measure its quality. On a scale of 1 to 10, how did it rate? Should I compare it to a model's? To an athlete's? To an actor's? Needless to say, I made a mess of the moment. Only now do I understand what she was asking.

I recently took a course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a secular approach to Buddhist meditation based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. MBSR claims that we are perfect the way we are, but at the same time it encourages long lasting change. Initially this appeared to be a hopeless contradiction. Eventually the contradiction resolved into a paradox when I realized that MBSR redefines the term perfect.

The conventional meaning of perfect is "without flaw or blemish." It derives from the Latin perfectus, the past participle of "to finish," and in this sense means "finished," "lacking nothing," "complete." This definition of perfection is based on performance. Anything or anyone who is conventionally perfect has met the highest standards of possible achievement. They've reached a level of excellence that's as good as it gets. They lack nothing in their capacity to realize their goals.

The unconventional meaning of perfect is "worthy of love." This has nothing to do with the etymology of the term and doesn't appear in the Oxford English Dictionary. But the claim that we are perfect just the way we are means that we are worthy of unconditional love. No matter how flawed or incomplete we may be, we each deserve love because it's a birthright. To be loved, in other words according to this claim, is a right to which we are inherently entitled. We needn't do anything at all to deserve it.

What's stunning about this unconventional definition of perfect is that it quietly undermines an entire way of thinking. It takes a term that describes the performance of the few and revises it to describe the birthright of the many. It takes a term that entails rigorous comparison between contenders and revises it exclude all reference to others. It takes a term that evokes social stratification and revises it to make everyone equally worthy. By redefining the term perfect as "worthy of love," MBSR dismantles the foundation of the paradigm by which value and love are based on achievement.

What it means to be perfect just the way we are is to be worthy of love regardless of achievement. To be worthy, this is to say, of unconditional acceptance, of empathy for our pain, and of compassion for our suffering simply because we are part of humanity. This kind of love is radically inclusive. It holds all people together regardless of difference in a universal embrace of mutual acceptance. This does not however mean that other people must like us, nor does it mean that we must like them. But it does mean that if we could learn to love others we might be able to achieve a depth of understanding that would allow us to live together in relative harmony.

What's true between people is also true for oneself. To accept oneself as perfect just the way one is is to manage to love oneself regardless of achievement. To accept oneself unconditionally, to empathize with one's pain, and to have compassion for one's suffering keeps one together regardless of conflict in a self-sustaining embrace of internal acceptance. This does not mean that one must also like oneself. But it does mean that if one could learn to love oneself one might be able to achieve a depth of understanding that would allow one to live in relative harmony with oneself.

To accept others and ourselves just the way we are is also the best hope for the depth of understanding that makes possible both collective and individual transformation. Only by understanding our differences with others and only by understanding our differences with ourselves is it possible to find practical solutions to conflict. Moreover, when we attend to the differences at play we already put in motion the process of change. This is because attending is a transformative act. By shifting the emphasis from opposition to acceptance, replacing critical judgment with compassionate discernment, the simple act of attending invites new information that generates insight and lays the groundwork for change.

The change that is made possible through total acceptance can lead to greater health, smoother functioning, and more contentment. It can end wars between people and end wars within ourselves. And it can lead to a more vital experience of life. It cannot, however, make us any more or less perfect, at least not in the unconventional sense of the term. Because no matter how much we do or don't change, we are always just as equally entitled to love. This is what it means to be perfect as is. Worthy of love no matter what.

When I look back at that terrible moment years ago when my girlfriend asked suddenly if I liked her body part, I now understand what she really was asking. She was asking if I accepted her just the way she was. Without condition. Without comparison. Without requiring any change. She wasn't asking if I liked her body but rather if I loved her self. I only wish I could have answered, "You're perfect just the way you are." But it has taken me a lifetime to understand what this means.


kristina b said...

Well, now I'm reading your whole blog, because it's an inspiration! These are issues that I think about regularly.

I do have a question for you, though. I am an atheist. I do not believe in the supernatural at all. It's not that I don't think there are things to learn from religion. I just don't believe in the supernatural aspects of any religion. That being said, I *want* to believe that to be loved is a birthright, as you say... but I do not have any reason to (other than that it "feels right" to think so). I'm curious where your belief in this idea stems from.

Dr Raphael Gunner said...

Hi Kristina:

You ask a wonderful question. I am also an atheist and find it unconvincing to attribute first principles to a deity. To this extent I am skeptical of claims to human rights. Where do they come from in the absence of god?

On the other hand, if you assume that morality is a human construct, a consensus hard fought within and between cultures, it is possible to believe in the existence of human rights. These rights aren't divinely decreed as the Declaration of Independence suggests. Rather, they are man made on the basis of shared values.

To this extent, rights are always subject to change as cultures transform and social norms shift. But if their mutability elicits a burdensome anxiety, it can also excite a vitalizing optimism since they can always be updated, refined, and improved on.

It is on this basis that I believe that to be loved is a birthright. Everything I know about infant attachment and human development suggests that being loved optimizes growth. If at some time in the future this proved to be false, I would feel obliged to revise my assertion accordingly. Meanwhile, I can only advocate what seems to be true -- that we would all be better off if we were truly loved.

Thank you for taking the time to read through my blog. I greatly appreciate your thoughtful response.