” Be ye Therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.”
We love and adore that which is perfect in our society. Hollywood is built on the premise that the beautiful people can sell movies, models are airbrushed to perfection to sell magazines. The Olympic games is going on currently with its motto, “Bigger, stronger, faster.”
As the records fall, it seems these athletes do live up to the motto. Just look at Michael Phelps, the epitome of the bigger, stronger, faster ideal.
Sadly, as recent scandals in Baseball and Bicycling have revealed, the push to be bigger, faster, and stronger can lead to the use of steroids, amphetamines, or other substances with very real consequences for an athletes long term health and well being. When does the drive to perform cross the line into madness. In my day, Michael Jordan was celebrated worldwide as the greatest ever, even carrying his team to victory over my beloved Utah Jazz in one game in the finals with Forty some odd point and the flu. Today, it is Tiger Woods held in much the same esteem, having just won the US open with a severe knee injury in a playoff he counts as his greatest victory ever. My question is, at what point does this single minded devotion turn into madness.
Michael Jordan and the Bulls won and it mattered to him. He was more driven to beat anyone who stood in his way than anyone I have ever seen. It often seemed to me that the man got more joy out of winning and being better than he ever got out of the game itself. This, by the way, is one of the prime characteristics of pride described so eloquently by C. S. Lewis. Tiger Woods developed stress fractures of his leg in his intense desire to win. He held his knee so rigid to protect it that he actually stress fractured his bones with his own muscles. If you stop to think about it, that’s insane. Golf is a game. This could not really have been worth it.
I say this realizing that, for so many, sport is a metaphor for life. In the Olympics, it is truly inspiring to see others achieve and show what mankind is capable with a little talent, opportunity, and a whole lot of single minded dedication to a goal. It’s awe inspiring and yet intimidating at the same time. My DW made a comment the other day in reference to a certain Olympic swimmer that no one should be that good at something and still look so good, essentially, all gold medal athletes should have to be ugly. (Honey, if your reading, no one should be allowed to be so beautiful while being as talented and gifted a teacher and organizer as you.) 😉
It is sad how easy it is to take what we percieve as our flaws and compare them to others strengths. I actually excel at this myself. I have to admit, like many a doctor, I am a perfectionist. It has caused some serious suffering in my life. It has thrown me into the depths of major depression. It has not been my friend. Clawing my way out has involved looking at what I do well and appreciating it, looking at what I could do better and working toward it. It has involved the realization that progress, not perfection, has to be the standard as I am horibbly flawed, but also capable of learning and growing and continually doing better.
Putting the achievers and the physically perfect on a pedestal has a ugly price. Every year, millions of people put their lives at an admittedly small, but very real risk of death in plastic surgery, simply to improve their appearance. People work out, exercise and diet for the body they want, which would seem a perfectly admirable and worthy goal, until anorexia sneaks in and destroys them. Track and Field stars, Cyclists and Baseball players have been scandalized by the use of performance enhancing drugs to a point that it has irreversibly diminished their standing in the eyes of many, many spectators.
Many of these report they feel they had to use to level the playing field as they perceived everyone else was doing the same. This week I heard a fascinating podcast exploring the phenomenon by Jonah Lehrer at the Takeaway. Interestingly, some of these substances, HGH for example, have been proven to be no more effective than placebo and yet, because the athletes believe this will make them bigger, faster, and stronger, it does. For this reason, the IOC defines its use as cheating and HGH is still banned.
Personally, I think the ugliest consequences of our obsession with perfection come in our dealings with the physically imperfect. In our medical system, the most poorly compensated and least prestigious fields are the Geriatricians, who care for the old and frail, and the Pediatricians, who care for the very young. I don’t think this is a coincidence. In some degree the weak are always going to be considered less than the strong. Where the elderly have been revered and respected in many societies, they are now locked away in nursing homes facing horrific neglect today. As technology salvages, improves, and prolongs the lives of severely disabled children, many question if the cost is worth it. While health care rationing is inevitable in some form or another, my biggest fear is that it will be the chronically ill and the elderly that will become an inevitable focus of cutting back, in no small part because we tend to value imperfection less.
My wife, who has a degree in Early Childhood Education, reports the same trend in education. The college professors look down on the high school teachers, who devalue the middle school teachers who feel superior to the elementary school teachers, who at least aren’t those pathetic preschool teachers, with pay decreasing all along the scale.
Beyond being sad, this is actually the reverse of what really makes a difference in education. More and more studies are showing the a child’s early developmental environment (i.e. reading books to them, etc.) are the most potent predictors of success. This is where you really can make a difference in someones life. That difference is still possible all along the way, but not for those who drop out and fall through the cracks each step of the way.
I think our culture has a true revulsion for the small and the weak. I have experienced this far too often among my pediatric resident peers as they regard “broken” patients with disgust. Mental incapacity in particular is reviled. These are tough and complex issues. I don’t mean to oversimplify them. Giving care to an incurable demented patient at the expense of someone with a possibility of a greater quality of life undoubtedly makes sense in certain cases, though heartbreaking.
What I would hope we could all realize is that to one degree or another all of us are broken in some way. Determining a person’s worth by physical function is a very, very poor way to judge, as God explained to the prophet Samuel
7 […] Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.
My hope is that we can all learn to look a little less upon the outward appearance and more on the heart in celebrating achievement. Even more, I would hope we could do so in relating to those we fear or find imperfect and in making lifes tough choices. I would hope that we could all realize that we are all “broken” in one way or another, and yet full of unlimited potential. My hope is we could learn from each other in both our weakness and in our strengths. My hope is, most of all, that in spite of my annoying preachiness, you get something out of this post.