I was convinced that every mistake I made, every wrong turn, was another part of the rough ashlar that needed to be processed. The path became a series of checklists, and each task marked complete meant being closer to that perfect ashlar. Each task not complete, drove me deep into the recesses of that rough ashlar into both a figurative and literal, depression. That mental state was viewed as yet another imperfection of the ashlar, driving me further down into a horrible cycle. It was as if I was following a map, a path to enlightenment. Every wrong term, every missed step, needed to result in punishment, or I would be doomed to make the mistake again. It all simply told me that I just wasn't working hard enough.
This impacted every aspect of my life…as a Brother, as a Scoutmaster, husband, father, friend, etc. Every interaction was an apology, another area where I fell short of what my false self was telling me to be. I very quickly found out that one of the driving factors behind this obsession, was a massive fear of rejection. Friends, colleagues, family, will see me as less than what I am…God forbid they would see me for who I really am. And my kids…my kids deserve so much better. They deserve a better Father, the best that anybody could be. However, that strive to be the best ends up as unrealistic expectations placed upon their souls. By demonstrating this urge for perfection, my fear of negatively impacting them was coming to fruition. The very thing I was afraid of was happening.
So, I turned to therapy. I took a break from all education that wasn't related to figuring out what was going on…anything Masonic, work, or Scouting related that wasn’t urgent, had to be put on hold. After years of telling people that our brains are our own worst enemies, I had no choice but to see this in myself. One of the first books I read, Whole Again by Jackson MacKenzie, revealed quite a bit. This can be dangerous, however, because there is always the possibility of contracting "Medical Students' Disease." For those not familiar, this is the phenomenon, often seen in medical students, where they are immediately inflicted with every disease and issue they read about. There was one particular section, however, related to perfectionism, where it felt like I was reading a story about my self.
The perfectionist struggles daily with expecting things to be the way they are "supposed to be." There is some obsessive compulsive tendency here (like wanting dishes to be organized in a specific way). However, the majority of the feelings are around self loathing, and resentment. I can certainly see how the resentment can ruin relationships for those that are vocal about their needs and desires. Projects and tasks should be performed in a certain way. Any tasks I complete, must be maintained exactly as how I've done it (again, reference dishes). When combined with the self loathing, however, every time a task wasn't done as I felt it should be done, it became my personal problem. Either I would recognize that the inability to accept other implementations was another fracture in my rough ashlar. Or in some cases, I would blame myself for not communicating my intentions well enough. Certainly there were successes and great accomplishments, but those all belonged to my team members or partners. I was not permitted to enjoy the success…as it wasn't mine.
Another battle of the perfectionist is the take on as many new projects as possible. This was completely obvious in my life, and I can't remember a time where I didn't take on whatever was thrown at me. Looking back, in college, this actually resulted in a physical battle with mononucleosis that lasted over a month. I couldn't give up though. I couldn't stop, no matter how much I was hurt…just like an addiction. Something inside my mind kept pushing me for the next project, the next contribution, for if I was able to do more, I would be more indispensable. I could become not just the perfect ashlar, but the corner stone! That same corner stone that was rejected so many times.
At this point, I feel it necessary to explain that there is a significant difference between seeking sympathy, wanting the 'pity party', and self loathing. The former seeks the attention, the assistance, while the latter hides behind the smiles and laughter. Self loathing often results in seclusion, and withdrawal from society, even though the camaraderie might be what we need most. Thinking about the law of attraction, and the impacts our feelings have on others, there is a fear (yup, another fear) that by introducing ourselves into a concert or meeting when we aren't in the "right mind" may end up negatively impacting others. At one point, I almost skipped our Lodge of Instruction (a monthly district gathering we have in Massachusetts). My good friend, Brother, and Midnight Freemason contributor Erik Marks was speaking. I was so looking forward to this lecture, but I didn't want to poison the room, so I was going to stay home. I forced myself to go, and I left that meeting a different person. Not just his presentation about meditation and contemplative thought, but simply being there with my Brothers made such an impact. I was also able to speak with some of my Brothers about my struggles, trying to understand the difference between Self Compassion, and Self Centeredness. This distinction continues to be a struggle.
We often talk about the Ego - the inner mind. For most of my life. I was convinced that our Ego was merely the inner self that was the antithesis to Charity. From the King James Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:5 states that,
"Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;"
Eventually, with help, I realized that this was exactly what my Ego was doing. What makes me so special? I truly believe that there is a sense of divinity in us all. An unfettering compassion and love that is to be shared with others, and that's what makes us beautiful. I couldn't believe that I had it, because I'm fundamentally flawed. But what makes me so special to be imperfect and not worthy of this love, when so many others, even people I just met, are deserving of the love and compassion that I can offer?
Ryan Flynn has some amazing presentations…one of my favorite's is the Divine Master.
Brother Flynn was talking about Michelangelo's early life, some of the people he kept company with, and learned from, and of course some of his greatest works of art. This is such a thought provoking presentation, and really enforces the idea of 'hidden in plain sight.' I truly love some of the linkages between our lessons of today, and those of the very distant past. At one point, Brother Flynn discussed the rough and perfect ashlars, and alchemy, and transformation, and simply making yourself better. Sometimes that ashlar appears to be so rough, it's hard to imagine that ever becoming even close to something beautiful. And yet, the amazing marble that was used to carve Michelangelo's David, possibly one of his most famous works, was discarded, judged by other artists to be useless. I’m certainly not comparing myself to the amazing artists of the renaissance, but at that point in time, I realized that I dismissed my own ashlar. Brother Flynn mentioned a very inspiring quote from Michelangelo…
I couldn't believe that there was such beauty inside of me. There I was, surrounded by my Brothers, and one of my favorite speakers, and I was drifting off, because the Ego was once again taking control. On my way home, I continued to think about this quote. There is a beauty within us all-- including me. I started again down that dangerous path, though. "If I get to this point, I'll be better. Once I perfect this lecture, I'll be a better Mason. Once I attain enlightenment, I'll be healthier. Once I read this book, I'll be smarter.""Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."
Another book I was introduced to along the path, was Eckhart Tolle's, The Power of Now. This book had a great impact with a very dear friend of mine (not a Mason), but after reading I learned that several Masons that I admire have incorporated many of the concepts of this book. Tolle speaks of time as a fabrication of man. Within the animal kingdom, we are the only beings (that we know of) that ruminate over the past, and fear the future. The only point in time that matters to any of us, is right now, this very moment, this very breath. Once we can let go of "when I can…I'll be happy," only then can we truly be happy. I could understand the concept, but again, application of that tool eluded me. It was as if I was in the LEGO movie, looking for the instructional books as I was not yet a 'master builder'. If only I could attain enlightenment. That simple statement, that goal, was putting me back into mind, time, and removed me from the Now. One of my favorite lines from this book, so far, is,
"The past is the past, and there isn't anything that can be done to change that. The future is the future, and whatever happens, will happen."I still struggle, every day. Even writing this paper caused me to reflect greatly on past behavior. Additionally, there remains a part of me that believes that by overcoming this obsessive quest for the Perfect Ashlar, I can be a better Brother, Scoutmaster, Father, Husband, Friend. I am learning, though, that the kindness and Love that you give to others will never last, if you don't have kindness and Love for yourself.
Robert Edward Jackson is a Past Master and Secretary of Montgomery Lodge located in Milford, MA. His Masonic lineage includes his Father (Robert Maitland), Grandfather (Maitland Garrecht), and Great Grandfather (Edward Henry Jackson), a founding member of Scarsdale Lodge #1094 in Scarsdale, NY. When not studying ritual, he's busy being a father to his three kids, a husband, Boy Scout Leader, and a network engineer to pay for it all. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org