The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning

The poet John Keats once described the ideal state of the psyche as negative capability — the ability “of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” “The truth of life is its mystery,” echoed Joyce Carol Oates. This comfort with mystery and the unknown, indeed, is at the heart not only of poetic existence but also of the most rational of human intellectual endeavors, as many of history’s greatest scientific minds have attested. And yet, caught between the opinion culture we live in and our deathly fear of being wrong, we long desperately for absolutism, certitude, and perfect truth.

Originally published in 1993, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning (public library) explores what’s arguably the most important dimension of what it means to be human — our inherent imperfection — and the many ways in which we violate it daily, delivering a constellation of wisdom and practical insight on how to live in a way that enables, rather than disempowers, our humanity.

Authors Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham describe the spirituality of imperfection as “a spirituality of not having all the answers, stories convey the mystery and the miracle — the adventure — of being alive.” Though much of the focus falls on the Alcoholics Anonymous program — hailed by many as one of the most important organized movements of the 20th century and criticized by some for its own imperfections — the book, which passes the skepticism radar even of someone as non-religious as myself, is really about cultivating our capacity for uncertainty, for mystery, for having the right questions rather than the right answers.

The problem with organized religions, Bill Wilson once complained, ‘is their claim how confoundedly right all of them are.’ The spirituality of imperfection … makes no claim to be ‘right.’ It is a spirituality more interested in questions than in answers, more a journey toward humility than a struggle for perfection.

The spirituality of imperfection begins with the recognition that trying to be perfect is the most tragic human mistake.

Adding to the ongoing discussion of the psychology and philosophy of spirituality, Kurtz and Ketcham observe:

We are not ‘everything,’ but neither are we ‘nothing.’ Spirituality is discovered in that space between paradox’s extremes, for there we confront our helplessness and powerlessness, our woundedness. In seeking to understand our limitations, we seek not only an easing of our pain but an understanding of what it means to hurt and what it means to be healed. Spirituality begins with the acceptance that our fractured being, our imperfection, simply is: There is no one to ‘blame’ for our errors — neither ourselves nor anyone nor anything else. Spirituality helps us first to see, and then to understand, and eventually to accept the imperfection that lies at the very core of our human be-ing. Spirituality accepts that ‘If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.’


This is not a spirituality for the saints or the gods, but for people who suffer from what the philosopher-psychologist William James called ‘torn-to-pieces- hood’ (his trenchant translation of the German Zerrissenheit). We have all known that experience, for to be human is to feel at times divided, fractured, pulled in a dozen directions … and to yearn for serenity, for some healing of our ‘torn-to-pieces-hood.’

Much has been written — and debated — about the science of storytelling in recent weeks, so this excerpt on spirituality and story is of particular note:

Without imperfection’s ‘gap between intentions and results,’ there would be no story.


Listening to stories and telling them helped our ancestors to live humanly — to be human. But somewhere along the way our ability to tell (and to listen to) stories was lost. As life speeded up, as the possibility of both communication and annihilation became ever more instantaneous, people came to have less tolerance for that which comes only over time. The demand for perfection and the craving for ever more control over a world that paradoxically seemed ever more out of control eventually bred impatience with story. As time went by, the art of storytelling fell by the wayside, and those who went before us gradually lost part of what had been the human heritage— the ability to ask the most basic questions, the spiritual questions.

It all circles back to our discomfort with the mysterious and the unanswered, highlighting the urgency of relaxing into rather than tensing against it:

We modern people are problem-solvers, but the demand for answers crowds out patience — and perhaps, especially, patience with mystery, with that which we cannot control. Intolerant of ambiguity, we deny our own ambivalences, searching for answers to our most anguished questions in technique, hoping to find an ultimate healing in technology. But feelings of dislocation, isolation, and off-centeredness persist, as they always have.

If The Spirituality of Imperfection reminds you of Brené Brown’s excellent The Gifts of Imperfection, it’s for good reason — both go to the heart of our deepest conditioning, the kind of personal and cultural narratives we’ve come of age believing yet ones that keep us from fully inhabiting our own selves.

Published May 23, 2012




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