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Desparately Seeking Perfection

Desparately Seeking Perfection

Issue 60 September 2009

I was struck by a recent newspaper article about the “post-nuptial depression” which afflicts many newlyweds, and especially brides, in Britain and the USA (“The Bride and Gloom”, The Times, 9th July, 2009).


The article by Imogen Edwards-Jones, joint author of Wedding Babylon, reports that research by a Californian psychologist has found that 10 per cent of American couples seek counselling for post-nuptial depression (remorse, sadness or frustration), and the wedding blues is expected to hit a similar proportion of the 275,000 brides who tie the knot in Britain during the year. A wedding planner who works in West London is reported as saying, “I am not sure if it’s the pressure they put themselves under to achieve the perfect day, or if it is the comedown after such an enormous event that has been the focus of their lives for so long. Either way, when they wake up the next day they find that normal life is a little boring.”

“What can we offer from our spiritual tradition which sheds light on the search for perfection and the hunger for the ‘ultimate’ experience?”

Sharon Naylor, author of Home From the Honeymoon, implicates some specific problems behind “the malaise and flatness that, if left unchecked, can spiral into a true depression of sadness, lethargy, hopelessness, sleeplessness, and other negative effects.” These problems include feeling that “the  romance is gone”, that “you’re doing all the housework”, that you no longer have “your own funds”, that you’ve become “attached at the hip” (losing your independence), and that “your single friends don’t ask you to come out any more” 

A quick web search turned up many articles exploring this condition, one going back six years, (“Brides get the blues as the magic wanes: Post-nuptial syndrome rocks one in ten marriages”, by Amelia Hill, The Observer, 14th September, 2003). This explains that “post-nuptial depression, or PND, is a growing syndrome that has remained hidden by the shame sufferers when their fairy-tale dream plummets to earth.” A fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy is reported in the article as warning that “there is no happy ever after”; PND can go on indefinitely, and even lead to separation. Ranging from feelings of “vague discontent to full-scale depression”, it is “a modern phenomenon that is getting more common all the time”, and stems from the belief that the wedding “exper ience” will somehow elevate spouses instantly into a perpetually idyllic and higher state of perfect marital happiness and fulfilment.

Time Magazine (November 24th, 2008) reports how PND has entered the lexicon of marriage in the past few years. One bride of 2002 reflects in the article how, immediately after the wedding ceremony, she felt “a sort of buyer’s remorse – ‘What did I just do? This is really permanent’” she recalls. “That feeling of losing one’s selfhood can be overwhelming,” says a marriage and family therapist based in New York City. After the adrenalin wears off, there is often a real downer, with exhaustion and feverish viruses turning honeymoons into pretty miserable experiences. As novelist Rachel Johnson says, “The honeymoon is when the wheels come off. There is too much pressure for it to be perfect.” 

Part of the problem is surely the enormous expectation and expense ploughed into inflated wedding rituals that have become extravagant, grandiose and epic events. The article in The Times cited at the start of this essay reports one couple’s five-day marathon £50,000 wedding in Ibiza. Even six years ago (according to the article in The Observer) an average wedding costs £13,000, with very elaborate events costing more than £40,000, and up to two years needed to organise the day. Edwards-Jones suggests that for a generation of women reared on the “I’m Worth It” celebrity culture, their wedding day is the one day where they can “live the dream” and be the “Queen Bee” who attracts all the attention. All the brides she interviewed talked about wanting to be a “princess for a day” or about wanting the whole “Cinderellapackage”. Oliver James, author of Affluenza, has also pointed the finger at the prevalence of a “pink princess culture that embraces an overt and conspicuous femininity” as a reaction against the perceived drabness of feminism.

Another kind of inflation can be seen in the increasing popularity of “Extreme Weddings”. One British website on wedding planning gives information on how to get married underwater, or while skydiving, river rafting, or hot air ballooning. An American site based in Arizona, assuring us that “if you dream, anything is possible”, proposes Havasu Falls deep in the Grand Canyon as the venue for the “ultimate extreme wedding”. Or there is Mooney Falls, which requires a difficult descent down the side of the majestic canyon wall, so “helicopter service is available”.

Now, I am most definitely not bringing to you these reports of the ultimate megawedding, whether impossibly perfect or spectacularly extreme, because I am a miserable killjoy seeking to deny a bride the blissful experience she hopes for on her big day. And to set the record straight right now, I sincerely hope that every reader, one and all, who is planning to tie the knot, or has just  done so, or, indeed, is doing so right now, has (or had) an ecstatically happy wedding.

That said, there is clearly an issue here for us to ref lect on. The language which has come to light so far in this essay points to something special and elevated, even if some of the superlatives seem to miss the mark. Fairy tale dreams, perfection, the ultimate – such words are redolent of something transcendently beautiful. Do they not conjure images of paradise? What can we, as Muslims, offer from our spiritual tradition which sheds light on the search for perfection and the hunger for the “ultimate” experience?

My own reflections turn at once to the tradition of the 99 Names of God, the “Attributes of Divine Perfection” in Islamic tradition. The Qur’an tells us this: “Allah! There is no god but He. To Him belong the most beautiful Names” (20:8). So the Names are not ours; they belong to God alone. All of us have a share in some of them, and we may glimpse them through the window of our heart and strive to embody them (with God’s grace) as far as we can, but only in the indivisible and perfect Unity of the All-Comprehensive Name are all the Attributes of Perfection realised. In short, we, like all people of faith, consciously direct our search for ultimate perfection towards what is divine, acknowledging that there is no god but God.

Does this mean that striving to attain perfection in worldly matters (including a wedding ceremony) is always a misguided enterprise? Is not the search for worldly perfection a kind of idolatry or polytheism? Well, it might be and it might not, depending on the status you attribute to it. If it is seen as a sign of something beyond itself, a necessarily imperfect reflection of the Divine Perfection, all well and good. Don’t the weavers of traditional Persian carpets always make a deliberate error in the weaving to remind them that Perfection belongs to God alone?

If, however, that worldly perfection is the be-all and end-all, the ultimate objective, then it must surely lead to disappointment and disillusionment, and, indeed, to the various forms of depression (including PND) that arise from unrealisable expectations. This is so because the search for perfection situated in anything other than God can only ever be a projection of an inner vision of paradise. The object of that projection, no matter what it is, whether a person, thing, event or ideal, can never carry the full expectation heaped on to it. We cannot gain the ultimate fulfilment of spiritual realisation, or true happiness, from a dream home, a new kitchen, a designer handbag, a glamour model’s airbrushed skin, or a holiday in the Maldives. Neither, alas, can we reach it through a marathon fiveday £50,000 wedding in Ibiza that took two years to organise.

In a previous essay for this magazine (“Choosing an Abundant Life”, emel, January 2007) I reflected on our tendency to externalise or project the inner spark of divine perfection within the core of our essential nature onto the things of the world. “The endless proliferation of material products and their perpetually unfolding variants can never satisfy the inward spiritual hunger we are all imprinted with as human beings. Unconscious of the spiritual source of that hunger, we can only pile up or consume more and more in the vain hope that our increasingly voracious appetite and craving for novel taste experiences can eventually be assuaged. There is only the prospect of escalating demand and an exhausting and unrealisable search for perfection in what is always “out there” and never discovered within. Mesmerised by a dazzling array of baubles, we can only be drawn ever further into an intolerable surfeit of ‘choice’ which blinds us to our inward treasures. It is the unslakeable thirst of Tantalus in the infernal regions of Greek mythology: standing in a pool, his chin level with the water, parched with thirst yet never able to quench it; or the toil of Ixion, fastened to a ceaselessly revolving wheel, or Sisyphus, condemned to roll a huge rock up to a hilltop, only for it to hurtle headlong down to the plain again just before it reached the summit. And so he toiled perpetually, never reaching his goal.”

In such a way, we pile superlative on superlative, demanding even what surpasses the ultimate – the “ultimate extreme”. If we ignore the inner life, the spaciousness which lies within becomes distorted into something merely inf lated, gigantic and even monstrous when it is externalised. And that balloon, inflated with expectation, can only come down to earth. But if we nourish what lies within, every detail of our daily lives becomes invested with a richness and depth of meaning that transcends any amount of conspicuous consumption. Such is the ultimate realisation of the fairy tale dream, the union with the true Beloved.

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