The problem with perfection
Most of us have a pretty good idea what perfection looks like. Maybe we can see it, taste it, or even clearly define it. Perhaps we can even make a list citing various examples like:
- Sitting on a throne of $100 bills and never having to worry about money again.
- A flawless body complete with a chiseled mid-section and toned arms.
- A new sports car.
- A decadent meal at a three-star Michelin restaurant.
- A first-class trip to Europe.
- Michelangelo’s David, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Pearl Jam’s Ten record.
A pristine sandy beach in Mexico with a cold drink in my hand probably tops the list for me. But whatever word, phrase, or picture you use to define perfection, it’s undoubtedly a person, place, or thing. And by definition, moments in time and material objects are ultimately temporary. Even if momentarily possible, the concept of a flawless state is fleeting. Perfection is a myth.
The origin of the word perfect is the Latin perficere “accomplish, finish, or complete” and we often use the word as a verb, meaning “to bring to full development.” However, the connotation of being complete for us as human beings is a faulty one, because there is really no such thing…just birth, death, and the in between. And while some celebrate birth as an example of perfection and others look to death for the possibility of salvation, the in between is what matters.
My grandfather used to sometimes talk about the most “successful” people he knew growing up in New York City. One was the loyal beat cop who walked his neighborhood in Yorkville and the other was a cheerful train conductor who always made it a point to learn the names of everyone on his route. Neither of these men had money, worldly possessions, or had achieved the pinnacle of professional achievement. But according to my Grandpa, each man had found true success because they displayed a genuine sense of contentment and happiness – what you might call peace of mind.
Sadly, though my Grandpa could tell a great story, he couldn’t bring into being what he knew in his heart to be truthful. Instead, his own version of success looked like the typical American interpretation - amassing money, rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, and finding your name in print somewhere. Driven by a deep sense of perfectionism, my Grandfather won prestigious awards, made a lot of money during his life, and knew a lot of distinguished people. But those perfect ideals didn’t last - He died brokenhearted, alone, and ironically, broke.
In the movie The Jerk, the character Navin (Steve Martin), thought he had made it because he finally found his own name printed somewhere important...in the phone book! Similarly, many of us also incessantly ‘look for our own names’ – the validation of likes on social media, the accolades that come with climbing the corporate ladder, or the ego stroke of the perfectly crafted selfie.
The quest for perfection is an exhausting, non-stop pursuit of trying to get ‘there,’ presenting the ideal picture, and playing the game. Even many of those who are spiritually-minded view the concept of perfection as achieved in a far-off destination called heaven.
The problem is that we live in the here and now and the only way to get there is to be here. While the teachings of the great faiths in humanity clearly relate to the present, some mistake these teachings as a private club that promises a magic kingdom of transcendence that's accessible only in the future.
To seek perfection is ultimately a road to nowhere. Planning for a future paradise gets us bogged down in a checklist of ideals and pursuits - a crusade for a perfection and bliss that seems both within our grasp and yet unattainable. This expanding expectation and desire for euphoria down the road puts the possibility of present perfection out of reach – heaven can wait.
While there is such a perfect locality, it’s not a place, destination, or object, but a state of consciousness – an awareness and openness that’s actualized by a much more important word than perfection or even salvation. That word is love.
In the Bible, it says that there are only three things that truly last: “faith, hope, and charity (love).” The Bible is also clear that the greatest of these virtues is love (1 Corinthians 13:13). Whether you believe in God, read the Bible, or think all that exists is this material world, deep down we all know that we’re here to love one another, and by one another, that means everyone – those of different faiths, beliefs, colors, and creeds. Instead of perfection, we should be seeking inclusion and compassion. Especially at this point in human history, what matters right now is love.
To be perfect is an illusion driven by a primal desire to feel necessary and validated. But satisfying the need to be needed can only be fulfilled through humility by surrendering to the present. The Beatles famously sang the lyrics, “All you need is love.” They were right. It’s abundantly clear that we need a lot less perfectionism and a lot more grace and charity. We’re all imperfect beings, but we are also all blessed with the unlimited capacity for displaying the perfect human characteristic, love.