The False God of Perfection

The False God of Perfection
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Perfection is killing us.

Not perfection itself, but our obsession with it. The malady comes in a million guises, but has one common feature: a drive for total correctness, agreement, and acceptance. No gap or blemish allowed. Everything must bow to the one true vision. It's damaging our relationships and meddling with our sanity.

Correctness has everywhere become king. In the workplace, in town halls, and at church we worry about saying the wrong thing to the wrong people in the wrong way. Even the wrong thoughts in our heads may leak out. Social respectability requires that our bodies, hobbies, houses and cars always keep pace with some imaginary demand. We forever build our resumes and tally our "likes" to maximize social leverage. In the race to popularity, our children must wear the right clothes, play the right sports and post the right selfies. Ideology in politics and religion tramples the slow pragmatics of experience. College campuses punish deviations from the fashionable orthodoxies of the moment.

Error must not rear its ugly head. Such misplaced idealism only leads to division and mistrust.

There's a reason we seek perfection: it looks so good and seems so simple. But the problem is that perfection consumes itself. It eats away at its own heart. Always straining for the perfect ten, we plummet toward zero. Perfection diminishes the very ideal it purports to exalt and scrapes away meaning. It's a totalism that ends in nihilism.

And the standard is always arbitrary. It masquerades as objective truth, one that has logic within its own construct, but often dissolves when the larger frame is questioned. The irony is that perfection is something we make up or, to be more precise, we let others make up for us. It's a place no one's visited, a mirage at the end of a hot road that disappears and reappears just out of our reach.

Bits of old wisdom from around the world suggest ways of thinking outside this modern myopia. The Japanese have a concept called Wabi-Sabi, an aesthetic of one's material and spiritual surroundings that focuses on simplicity, modesty and the imperfection of things. It is a beauty that is beautiful because it has flaws.

The tradition of the Russian holy fool stems from the Biblical notion that worldly learning is absurd in the eyes of God. The fool is holy precisely because he is a fool, not in spite of it. He is called "blessed" not because he knows everything, but because he knows nothing. Some of the best insights peak out from the garb of foolishness.

The Navajo wedding basket shows the progression of life's stages. The whole design produces a circle that is broken only by a narrow sliver of white. This is the pathway out. The weavers believe that without this break in the perfect circle their minds will be shut and no longer able to create.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle described ethical virtue as a disposition that moves fluidly between extremes of too much and too little. The gold is found in the mean. The point is not to strive for some destination or fixed point, but rather to read the situation and then choose balance and proportion.

The Persian poet Rumi wrote: "There is no worse sickness for the soul, O you who are proud, than this pretense of perfection."

Jesus never wrote a book. His Gospel is not an exhaustive set of teachings; the "good news" was never meant to be a system. He taught that human beings are flawed and that any perfection we might get is a gift from God. There is no safety in the closed circle of law, he urged, but only in becoming like a child, the very embodiment of incompletion.

Modern progress notwithstanding, we are backward in our own way. Our information environment steers public attitudes to view disagreements as a battle of winner-takes-all between good and evil. Such polarization is the progeny of perfectionism. Tolerance and flexibility, not a war between absolutes, is a more sure way for our pluralistic reality.

A society where everyone agrees is no society at all, but a Utopia, which literally means "nowhere."

Nathan Nielson is a graduate of St. John’s College and lives near Salt Lake City, Utah.

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