Seeking Wholeness, Not Perfection: In Leadership, Learning and Life
An address originally given by the Reverend Victor H. Kazanjian Jr., Dean of Religious Life, Wellesley College at the Business Leadership Council at Wellesley College November 11, 1994
Good evening. It is a pleasure to be with you this evening. I have enjoyed the parts of today's program that I have been able to attend and particularly this afternoon's town meeting on the most daunting aspects of being a leader. What a remarkable exchange of ideas and energy between BLC members and student leaders. Once again, I am reminded of how fortunate I feel to be a part of this remarkable community as together we continue to search for ways to prepare women for leadership in today's world.
I must say that I was a little concerned about the rather rigid and somewhat punitive ways in which students seem to approach dealing with difficult co-workers, but that is, in fact, a part of what I would like to speak to you about this evening. Anyway, I am so very pleased that our students have the opportunity to forge relationships with you and I hope that we develop this opportunity further in the future.
This evening I would like to reflect with you on a topic that has become a central theme of my work at Wellesley. It is a kind of mantra that I find myself repeating in situation after situation as I encounter students, faculty, staff and alumnae during my day. The theme is exploring the difference between seeking wholeness and desiring perfection in our life and in our learning. I consider this theme to be about both a spiritual crisis and a leadership crisis. For I believe that these crises affect both our lives and our ability to be effective leaders. But before I delve into this reflection, I want to tell you just a little bit about what I do as the Dean of Religious Life at Wellesley.
As Dean, I am responsible for what might be described as two distinct but very related areas in my work.
First, I am responsible for nurturing the religious life of the College. Unlike other Deans at other schools and even unlike Wellesley's previous model, I do not represent any one religious tradition in this work. Rather, I am responsible for nurturing and supporting each religious community in their life at Wellesley equally. At present this means working with the Chaplaincy team that includes Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Protestant Chaplains and advisors as well as student leaders in the Baha'i, Buddhist, Hindu, Native African, Native American, Orthodox Christian and Unitarian Universalist communities. I work with each community to ensure that resources are available to support and celebrate their life together. I also work with this Chaplaincy team to develop new models for community worship in which each religious tradition is respected and in which no one voice dominates. Flower Sunday, which this year was attended by more that 1400 students packed into Houghton Chapel for a multi-faith celebration, is one example of this model in action, as are new multi-faith services at Alumnae Council and Reunion weekends.
The second part of my work as Dean is to explore the role of religion and spirituality in the educational process. This has been particularly exciting, as I have begun to work to develop programs that examine the critical role of the religious and spiritual dimensions of our lives and of learning. Wellesley has always held as fundamental to its educational process the intellectual, the relational and the spiritual dimensions of learning. Part of my work has been not only to lift up these three parts of Wellesley's mission but also to redefine the spiritual piece in a way that incorporates the breadth of experience in the contemporary Wellesley community and the world. At a time when most academic institutions have all but purged themselves of that which is religious or spiritual, Wellesley has charted a course in the opposite direction.
It is in this task of nurturing the spiritual life of the College community that I have found myself face to face with that most daunting of spiritual enemies, a force with the power to paralyze both individual and institution; the desire for perfection.
Wellesley College is a remarkable community in which to live and learn. I have rarely been in a community in which the desire for learning is accompanied by an equally strong desire to apply this learning in some positive way in the world. But woven into the fabric of this wonderful place is an errant thread that threatens to unravel even the most carefully woven cloth. I believe that the pursuit of perfection undermines the educational process at Wellesley. The pressure, the drive towards perfection seems so prevalent in this community; the push, push, push in an unrelenting race to succeed at work, which is often measured by the illusory standard of perfection. All too often this single minded chase of the external reward that seems to lie at the end of the stick of perfection leads to a gradual eroding of the inner life and spirit. I see it in the faces and hear it in the words of those who come through my door exhausted from the race, feeling empty and alienated and alone regardless of whether or not they have met with the success that they have sought.
Now certainly Wellesley is not unique in this struggle. We live in a world seduced by the notion of perfection. From the innocent pressure applied to a child by adoring parents, to the calculated barrage perpetrated on us by the advertising media, the desire for perfection is an inextricable part of at least American society. We seek: the perfect grade, the perfect body, the perfect job, the perfect friend, the perfect child, the perfect lover, the perfect life and like the carrot on a stick, all of this seems perfectly attainable. We see perfect people leading perfect lives every day, on TV or at the movies, seemingly free from the unattractive realities of everyday living as human beings on this imperfect planet. Witnessing all of this perfection, we wonder when we look in the mirror or take a good look at our lives, "Why can't that be me? I must be doing something wrong."
As you think about the course of your life, does this strike a familiar chord? Are there ways in which you have participated in or are currently participating in the search for perfection? Are there moments that you can identify when you have felt unimportant to those whose praise you seek or unworthy of another's love, or unattractive in another's eyes? I certainly have felt these things. For I was well schooled in the search for perfection and taught that anything less than perfection was not acceptable. When you look at yourself in a mirror do you behold the remarkable, complete gift that you are, or do your eyes see something else, something less than what you are, an imperfect image contrasted with the perfection that the world demands. Our culture is suffering from a kind of spiritual anorexia. At Wellesley we see the results of physical anorexia and bulimia all too often and know the part that perfectionism plays in this illness. As a society, we are also anorexic, unable to look in a mirror without seeing someone who is not what we want to be. My struggle with the desire for perfection has always had a particular focus, one that has dragged me through the depths of despair and has more recently shown me a path to a joy that I had not previously thought possible.
Ever since I was two years old and began to put thoughts into spoken words, I have been a stutterer. These days it is more common for people to tell me that they didn't realize that I am a stutterer, but I am, and it has been this journey through the imperfect world of my broken speech that has introduced me to the dangers of the desire for perfection and the value of the search for wholeness.
Each time I speak, whether it be in a large public gathering or an intimate encounter, I experience a struggle common to all stutterers. When I am speaking and words are flowing freely, I experience a constant anxiety fueled by a fear of what may be coming with the next word or phrase. And then in a fraction of a second, in the blink of an eye, in the space between breaths, as my vocal chords lock on a particular sound or word and I begin to stutter, I experience a flood of feelings rushing through my body in a wild, uncontrollable cascade. I feel panicked, afraid, abandoned, vulnerable, naked, stupid, ugly, helpless, alone... It has been this way for as long as I can remember. It has been this way for as long as I have been able to speak. These feelings that I have had ever since I was a child continue to be a part of my daily interactions in a verbal world.
For years I considered this imperfection a terrible burden, a kind of millstone hung around my neck, and despite what you see and hear before you, until I was about 19 it was pretty bad. I stuttered usually at some time during every sentence. I would get stuck on a word, unable to utter a sound. I would contort my face in what I imagined to be horrifying ways struggling to force my way through the block. And all the time consumed by the thought of all of the horrible things that I imagined those who were observing me were thinking. Then suddenly it was gone and I was speaking again, my stomach still in knots, waiting for the next stuttering moment that lay ahead. Even now, when my life is so very verbal as I look for every opportunity to share my thoughts on just about any subject, the same cascade of feelings remains. My stuttering plays a very different role in my life these days and while it is still a source of great anxiety, it is also a window into the world of spirituality and has become my constant reminder about the difference between seeking wholeness and seeking perfection in my life.
I have learned that to seek perfection is to strive for the impossible. Perhaps this is blasphemy in such a success oriented, academic environment, but I know it to be true. Perfection is illusion, at least as far as human beings go, and our lust for it leaves us only disappointed and depressed as we stare into the imperfect reality of our lives.
But wholeness, wholeness is something worth seeking. While perfection demands that we be other than what we are, wholeness accepts us as we are. While perfection is defined by standards set by others in the world around us, wholeness is determined by the actualization of that which lies within. While perfection sends us in search for that which we can never be, wholeness asks only that we discover that which we already are.
Wholeness is about completeness. It is about bringing the parts of our lives into a balanced relationship. It is about healing the wounds of our hearts and mending the brokenness of our spirits. It is about seeing the beauty in a collage of imperfections, for it is the imperfections that are the window that lets us look in the direction of wholeness.
In stark contrast to the joy of discovering wholeness, our desire for perfection has led to the gradual separating of the external and the internal lives of human beings. As we have become increasingly dependent upon external stimulation and feedback for our sense of self and direction, we have become detached from the source of insight and energy that resides within each of us. Certainly our obsession with an externally defined desire for perfection is one example of this but there are others; the addictive and numbing effects of television, the increasing need for immediate gratification, the ever escalating power of economics in defining social policy. We are a people adrift on the sea of the external having broken away from our mooring in the solid grounding of the internal. This drifting is nowhere more apparent than in those whom we have identified as the leaders of our society.
In 1990 Parker Palmer, writer, scholar and teacher, delivered an address to an academic audience entitled, "Leading from Within: Reflections on Spirituality and Leadership" in which he spoke to this present crisis of leadership. He said,"The problem is that people rise to leadership in our society by a tendency towards extroversion, which means a tendency to ignore what is going on inside themselves. Leaders rise to power in our society by operating very competently and effectively in the external world, sometimes at the cost of internal awareness... I have met many leaders," says Palmer, "whose confidence in the external world is so high that they regard the inner life as illusory, as a waste of time... But the link between leadership and spirituality calls us to re-examine that denial of the inner life." Uniting the inner and the outer dimensions of our lives and thereby bringing ourselves into relationship with others is that which constitutes the movement towards wholeness.
I would like to suggest four ways in which we might begin to shift our sights from perfection to wholeness as we approach both life and leadership.
The first step in addressing this division within our selves is to examine the difference between doing and being. We seem to define our worthiness by the quantity of what we are able to do. We seem to need to fill every waking moment of our lives with some worthwhile activity. We refer to the lack of such activity as doing nothing or wasting time. I don't know if this happens to you, but when I am taking a nap, which happens very infrequently these days with two boys ages 4 and 2 running about the house, but when I do and I am resting peacefully exhausted from all of the hard work that I have done and when the phone rings and the person on the other end hearing my sleepy voice says "I'm sorry, were you sleeping?" I quickly answer, "Oh no, I'm awake!" or "No, I was just resting my eyes." We also place great value on the ability to do two or three things at once and have invented an endless catalogue of gadgets that allow us to multiply our ability to do exponentially. It is not without a little embarrassment that I can still remember myself popping a meal in the microwave, while talking on the portable phone, as the TV kept me informed of every breaking event, and while our first son Jeremy at the age of three months swung back and forth in one of those automatic swing things. This was progress?
When I arrived at Wellesley I was a doer. I had spent most of my adult life trying to encourage others to get involved and active in community and worldly affairs. When I came to Wellesley, I was here about four minutes when I realized that my calling was in a very different direction. I found that while members of this community excelled in doing, they were novices in being; being still, being quiet, being attentive, being aware. One of the first things that my Chaplaincy colleagues and I offered to this community was a listing of quiet spaces around this campus where people might spend a few moments in reflection and peace, by the lake or in the arboretum or in the museum. Nothing that I have done since has evoked such a positive response. It was as if to indicate that people needed permission to cease doing and be present in this beautiful place. Now this is not to say that being is the easiest task for me. But I am getting better. The other night I woke up at 3:00 a.m. and started to make lists of those things that I felt compelled to do during the following few days. As I sat looking blankly at my calendar unable to determine a way to possibly accomplish these tasks, it occurred to me that I had another option. I could decide not to do some of them, and not only this but I could also decide not to do some of the things that were already filling my every waking moment and replace them with such frivolous activities as reading and writing and prayer. Oh yes there was a cost to doing this, but the cost was not to my own well-being or that of my families.
When we cease the doing and begin to be, we realize that while our doing leaves us feeling only exhausted and incomplete, our being fills us with new energy and insight, that which is necessary to be a good leader. Suddenly we begin to see ourselves less as that which we are not and more as that which we are. Suddenly the glass of our lives begins to look half full perhaps for the first time.
The second step towards embracing wholeness as a worthy goal is the practice of becoming downwardly mobile. This is a phrase that I first heard from Henri Nouwen, who, as a Catholic priest and spiritual teacher, speaks of the essential journey inward. At a time when we have deified upward mobility as the most sought after path towards fulfillment, Nouwen asks that we consider another route. To become downwardly mobile means to choose that which takes us deeper into relationship with our selves and with those whom we love. I am reminded of a story that I heard told by Rabbi Harold Kushner, which I believe also appeared in his book When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, in which he addressed what he saw as a growing crisis in the human experience, the shift in human values away from the relational and toward a self-centered, externalized understanding of success. He spoke about all of times that he as a Rabbi cared for people in the final stages of their dying, and how in all of his forty some odd years of pastoral care never once did anyone ever say, "Oh I only wish that I had spent more time at the office."
Becoming downwardly mobile is about making choices. It is about listening to the deepest needs that reside way down in our hearts, rather than always responding to that which first arises in our minds. It is about realizing that much of that which we take as given; the evening meeting, the phone call that interrupts a meal, the project that consumes our thoughts and distracts us from others around us; that these things are actually choices that we make with our time and our energy. Becoming downwardly mobile does not mean that we give up on our vocational dreams. Quite the opposite, it means that we seek to fulfill these dreams within the context of our own well-being and that of those around us.
The third aspect of seeking wholeness has to do with the ways in which we learn and consequently lead.
There is a Zen Buddhist story about a well-known Western academic who made a pilgrimage to a great Zen master in search of knowledge about the great truths of life. He arrived and waited impatiently for a long while before being welcomed by the master. As soon as they sat down, the academic immediately launched into a discourse on the meaning of life and all of the questions that he brought to the master. At one point the Zen master got up and brought over a pot of tea and offered it to the academic who, although distracted, politely accepted. As the academic talked, the master poured tea into his cup. Out of the corner of his eye the academic watched as the master poured tea right to the brim of the cup and then kept pouring until the cup overflowed and the tea was flowing all over the table and onto the floor. Finally unable to control himself the academic shouted "STOP! What are you doing?" "Like you," said the master, "this cup when full cannot accept anything else. You must first empty yourself if you seek to learn that which you do not already know."
There is much that is profound about the ways in which we teach and learn in academic environments and particularly at Wellesley. And yet as we seek to prepare women for life in an increasingly complex world, it is becoming clearer that we must examine new ways of teaching and learning. In the most traditional educational model, students are seen as empty vessels into which is poured the rare elixir of knowledge. We have learned that while this process may pass on information one to another it does not guarantee that knowledge will result, for true knowledge is about the integrating of the intellectual with the relational and spiritual aspects of our lives. Education must become more whole if we are to produce the kinds of leaders whose knowledge of the world is formed of both head and heart and who will be able to guide us through the complex challenges that we face now and into the next century.
Finally, in the movement from perfection to wholeness, I would like to offer an alternative image of leadership to the ones that we often find in our world. In fact it is an image not so different from the one which Dorothy [Weaver] offered this afternoon, when she spoke of developing people to their best potential rather than simply using people to get the job done. The classic model of a leader in this society is that of a solitary figure, steeled against the forces of the world, fighting to maintain control of a situation, filtering out all distraction like friends and family, and expending every last breath on the task at hand. This image has its origins in the male model of the military in which the ability to use power and authority in controlling the behavior of others is of highest priority and in which the ultimate goal is to be attained at almost any cost. While we have certainly begun to explore alternatives to this model, as is evidenced by the volumes of material now available on new management techniques that emphasize, a more cooperative approach and encourage positive thinking and feedback, our institutions are still set up to reward the single-minded, unemotional, externally focused leaders whose practice, not to mention their language, still reflects the old model. But there is another image for leadership, a more complete image, one that powerfully speaks to the creative potential of such a role. The image comes from the French word "Accoucher" which translates, to assist in the act of giving birth. I believe that leaders in our society must become as midwives, helping others to give birth to the remarkable potential for creative energy that exists within all people. While popular images of leaders are those who accumulate knowledge and information that allow them to be in control of others in their organization, leaders who are midwives, integrate their learning by listening to the particular needs of a particular person so that they can bring forth the full potential of that which each person has to offer. Leaders who are midwives know that the health of that which is created, whether this be an individual or an institution, is dependent upon the birthing process. Leaders who are midwives know that ultimately they are not in control, that they are at most a participant in a great act of creation.
To learn to be rather than to do, to become downwardly mobile, to integrate head and heart in our learning and to be as midwives as we enable others to give birth to their full creative potential, these are the beginning places in our movement away from the paralysis of perfection and dependency on the external, and towards the realization of wholeness. Within our Wellesley community there is so much wisdom about this process of transformation. The work of the Stone Center and the Center for Research on Women continues to provide cutting edge insight that will inform this process. The study that you have commissioned is exactly the work that we must begin to do in this area. Under the leadership of President Walsh and Dean Kolodny the teaching process and course content in the Wellesley curriculum are being evaluated to ensure that we are offering a more complete educational experience. I would submit that you can potentially play a critical role in our ability to teach in this place. I hope that you had a sense of that this afternoon. Wellesley students are hungry for connection with others like yourself with whom their intellectual learnings can be placed in a relational context. It is the possibility of this kind of interaction across barriers of age and experience that is necessary if our education offering is to be complete. I applaud your care, compassion and concern for this place. Wellesley needs your energy and your insight and I hope that the embracing of the imperfections of your life may bring you closer to the wholeness that is already yours.