“THE SPIRITUALITY OF IMPERFECTION”
by Ernest Kurtz
The acceptance of shortcomings is a strength. This message resounds, as always, in all traditions, loud and clear: Mistakes are part of being human. The real meaning of “sin” has to do not with committing evil deeds, not with willfully breaking laws, not even with the act of “falling short.” The term sin classically signifies not an action but the state of falling short, a situation of alienation from reality. One brilliance of Alcoholics Anonymous is that it never uses the term sin, a word hopelessly overloaded with convoluted meanings, but talks instead of the “defects of character” and the “shortcomings” of those who are “alcoholics.” For sin has become a word of religion, of absolutes; shortcomings are words of humanity, a concept in tune with the understanding that we are imperfect.
And if we do “fall short”? That very awareness of “falling short” implies two related realities: First, we are trying, and second, we need to try again. There is no failure here, for spirituality, as the ancients reminded over and over again, involves a continual falling down and getting back up again. That is why humility—the knowledge of our own imperfections—is so important, and that is why spirituality goes on and on and on, a never-ending adventure of coming to know ourselves, seeing ourselves clearly, learning to be at home with ourselves. The great need is for balance—when we are down, we need to get up; and when we are up, we need to remember that we have been, and certainly will be again, “down”.
It was a large meeting, well over two hundred people. At one end of the room stood the canister of regular coffee; at the other end, the pot of decaf. Conversation around the first coffeepot centered on a man who was clearly depressed and afraid.
“I just feel like I’m at the end of my rope,” he admitted. “It’s one damned thing after another. Nothing seems to be going right. This week my dog died, my kids came down with strep throat, I can’t keep my mind on my work, my wife and I are fighting constantly. I just don’t know how I’m going to make it.”
“Well, son,” an old-timer said gently, “at least you didn’t take a drink today.”
The conversation at the other end of the room centered on a man who exuded good cheer. “I just feel so wonderful,” he was saying. “What a week this has been! I got a promotion at work; my daughter is graduating from college with honors; my wife and I are like newly married lovers. And just yesterday I had the best golf game of my life!”
“It all sounds great,” another old-timer said gently. “But remember … you’re an alcoholic. Just one drink will destroy it all.
The point of Humility is to find a balance, that place in the middle of life’s teeter-totter that allows one foot to reside on the side of “god/saint/angel” and the other on the side of “worm/sinner/beast.” From this perspective, A.A.’s most significant contribution to the tradition of a spirituality of imperfection can be summed up in two words: sober alcoholic.