This may seem paradoxical, considering the word foolish implies a disempowered, ignorant position, however, there are great merits to being “foolish”.
“Hello, my name is Ava, and I am a perfectionist. I have been in recovery for most of my life, and I frequently relapse.”
This is what I would say if I went to a uniquely curated recovery meeting, made just for me. I would imagine much of the American population, and especially women, would start with my same admission. Most of us are terrified of looking foolish, and our terror is managed by our extreme efforts to control life, relationships, and our image.
This terror, and thus the perfectionism we use to remedy it, is seriously all-pervasive. This perfectionism compulsion manifests in many cultures, and especially in America, as an obsession with: excellence, beauty, performance, accumulating wealth and wonderful experiences, and a special brand of consumerism that feeds a hunger that can never be quelled.
Sadly, if we seek, perform, and become this perfection, we believe we can reach our personal, social, societal, spiritual/religious, historical, and cultural standards for the perfect human life. We align with perfectionism as our religion, and we pray to this deity to avoid the fallout that comes from the opposite experience of perfectionism.
You may be lost right now. You may be saying, “What is the opposite experience of perfectionism, and what does this have to do with the title of this article?” I am here to tell you, the opposite of perfectionism, is not just being imperfect, it is being foolish! Yes. Foolishness is the opposite of perfectionism. With imperfection, there is still the promise that perfection could be re-enstated, but foolishness, comes with the opposite approach to life that perfectionism represents.
Perfectionism seeks to control and make everything predictable, organized, clean, comfortable, and attainable, if one can just be more and more perfect. Foolishness is defined by a lack of sound judgment or wisdom- a character trait that implies one doesn’t have access to the perfectionism that might allow someone to strategize, control and perform the perfect orchestration of life. However, what is “foolish”, we often forget, is very much determined by the many contexts we exist within. Basically, what is foolish, is making mistakes, or having undesirable experiences, that our culture perceives as avoidable, over and over again. So as a culture becomes more perfectionistic, and thus delusional about what is within the realm of our control (as seen with increasing convenience, high- technologies, privilege, wealth, and resources), there are more and more “avoidable” experiences we are likely to encounter. And, as we face these “avoidable” experiences in everyday life, we feel shame for failing to control them, as according to our culture, the margin for error is supposed to be, ever- so narrow.
For those still adhering to severe perfectionism, and resisting the nature of life itself, we judge and label the Fool as a failure somehow, and someone who’s existence is a waste on this planet. We attempt to guide them, and even successfully convince the Fool who has not yet fully embraced self-love and let go of perfectionism, that they are truly disempowered, and need our guidance and help. We seek to help them be “saved”, just as missionaries do- saved with our perfectionism. We don’t see that this perfectionism is a game that we never win- as we can NEVER control or get everything we desire, and our perfectionism burns us out, and makes us sick and tired. It also NEVER completely protects us from terror and the shame we learn to experience when we appear to be foolish. So, really what we are doing when we try to “save” the lost Fool, is trying to avoid looking at our own perfectionism, and the futility of our perfectionist cosmology. If as individuals and a society, we can judge and criticize the Fool, and especially get them to believe what we project upon them, we don’t have to look at how unhappy and terrified we are, of truly living!
For those of you who are repeatedly viewed as Fools, I see you. I understand it is because we are either too tired of keeping up perfectionism, lack the necessary resources and privilege to go along with the current perfectionism zeitgeist, or no longer give AF, so to speak. Us Fools no longer participate in the cultural training of perfectionism. For those of us who haven’t quite let go of the dream of perfectionism, have surrounded ourselves with perfectionists, and temporarily or accidentally walk the path of the Fool, we spiral into ever greater self-destruction and depression when we desperately grip at futile attempts toward perfectionism, to avoid terror and shame. Or, if we wholeheartedly embrace the role of the Fool, we let go of attachment to thus looking wise, being or appearing “successful” and relevant, and hiding the messiness of living a human life. As a Fool who has embraced the life of Fool, we are empowered in our own existence, as we cannot be wrong or bad for existing as who we are. This sort of empowerment is stronger than any shield the religion of perfectionism might give you.
Even ancient cultures understood the wisdom and power of the Fool’s Journey, so to speak. Many mythical stories involve the archetype of the Fool, who seems to live life, suspended in the ever-forming walkway into the vast unknown, and somehow trips over important spiritual realizations, through trial and error. The Fool learns to reach these realizations through meeting every not-so-great experience with a curious and open-mind, an adventurous spirit, self-love, and humor, and being unapologetic about their foolishness. And, in the true spirit of Foolishness, their willingness to engage with, and experience the mess of life persists, despite the judgments and advice of onlookers. In fact, in many stories, the Fool’s Journey IS the example of the process in reaching enlightenment, while those who stand by with perfectionism are viewed as those living life according to the trappings of ego.
So, the next time you censor yourself to ensure the positive regard from others, or curate a fantasy image or life over social media, think about your attachment to perfectionism, and your avoidance of appearing foolish. Perhaps instead allow yourself to be more of a Fool, move through the shame and terror of being more and more visibly human, and let go of your grip on perfectionism?
As the Fool’s Journey demonstrates, true empowerment is not in perfecting, controlling, beautifying, and in fitting in with the social and cultural structures that further alienate you from your natural humanity, and the unpredictable and chaotic realities of existence. Empowerment is in showing up as who you are now- fear, openness, warts, ignorance, bumbley-ness, playfulness, and all, and in being VISIBLE, and unapologetic about it! Empowerment comes with acknowledging how little control we all actually have, and bravely venturing repeatedly into this unknown, without needing to be anyone other than who you are, and while trusting you will get and be, EXACTLY what and who you need to be!
Onward, my fellow Fools!