The state or quality of being perfect;
Miriam-Webster - Being entirely without fault or defect. Corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept;
Oxford – Having all the required or desirable elements, qualities or characteristics.
Collins – As good as it could possibly be.
I am not perfect!
How often have these words drifted through the script of my life – more often than I care to count and way more often than I care to admit. They’ve dripped off my tongue in apologetic tones of self-deprecation. They’ve spat from my mouth in lashing tones of self-defense. They’ve wound their way through my mind like a vile tapeworm, eating away at my self-worth.
A psychologist would say, “Take comfort, you don’t have to be perfect”. A theologian would say, “Take comfort, you are not meant to be perfect”. And were my sweet mother still here, she would take me on her lap and hold me while my anguish released itself, offering me the simple comfort of love. All of these have their momentary effects, for which I have been grateful time and again, but in the end, I am not comforted.
This amorphous blissful state is as undefined in its definitions as it is elusive in its substance. It is the limbo stick too low to the ground to slide under, or the high jump bar too far out of sight to clear. I make the attempt, I knock the bar away– already a pronounced failure - and I fall. I live in frustration that I cannot accomplish it, and in resignation that I will never accomplish it. And the antithetical realization comes over me that there is this thing I have to reach for that is unreachable, a state I should aspire to attain that is unattainable, a race I should win with a non-existent finish line.
Elementary School: 5 1/2 years old, 1st grade. I began to feel the weight of systemic judgement. Suddenly, there were right answers and wrong answers. A grading scale was implemented that measured us against an objective standard of perfection, how close to or far from that point we stood, and against each other. A well-meaning educator may explain, “These systems are implemented simply to measure your understanding of the material”, but in truth, in our young truth, we knew. An “A” was good (perfect), an “F” was bad (severely flawed), and the rest of the letters were hanging somewhere in between, from almost, but not quite, good enough to almost, but not quite, worthless. It was a filing system, and I was petrified that I might find myself in the bottom drawer. And though I did well, the expectation of not only reaching but maintaining the closest proximity to perfection as possible, cost me immeasurable emotional capital.
Junior High School: 11 years old, 7th grade. Getting off the bus to walk into a white school in a white neighborhood added another, more nebulous, divergence on this labyrinthian pathway to perfection. Something was here that we were told to strive for, that we should work to incorporate or attain, that here was some mysterious key to a more perfect life we had been missing. Something in the manner of these other adolescent children told me they knew some Thing, but nobody was talking, nobody was explaining. What very quickly did become obvious to my adolescent mind was that those others saw themselves as closer to that state of perfection than we were. Why? Was some part of the secret here, how to navigate the labyrinth? I made friends, but I discovered no answers. And if there were answers in this new situation, there was no time. The majority of the white families moved out inside of three years. They jumped, recoiled, and ran away from us, as if we were a pack of poisonous snakes from the swamp. A dim light from the distance flickered. “Look somewhere else. Here your doubts are only reaffirmed by default. This is not the place to be enlightened.”
High School: 14 years old, 9th grade. In how many categories can one fail to be perfect? By this time, the weight of responsibility fell mainly on my own shoulders, and by this time, the weight of the failure to reach this confounded state of perfection was too heavy for me. The forgiveness once received for this or that shortcoming was no longer forthcoming - child status was over. The scholastic scrutiny continued, but the other compartments of life began to demand elevated attention – social networking, romantic relationships, extra-curricular engagements, self-presentation, looking good and smelling good. A misplaced word, an unattractive cough, a grade too low, an ill-fitting piece of clothing were all reminders of that perfection that still eluded me, and the imperfection that still encompassed my life. One of my teachers told me I would be prettier if I wore makeup……Strike 1 (why don’t you look after yourself?). My composition teacher wanted the choir to sing one of the pieces I wrote. No, I don’t want to direct it and I’d rather not even be there……Strike 2 (what a useless, frightened mouse!). The boy I liked for at least 2 of those 3 years of HS never looked my way, just like in a thousand movies about teenagers. But unlike those films, he never did notice……Strike 3 - You’re Out! The pressure of high school was breathtakingly high, and……since I couldn’t breathe anyway, I held it until I graduated.
Adult Pretense and Admission
Let’s pretend this confidence I exude is real. Let’s pretend that confusion and insecurity are gone. Let’s pretend I am perfectly well-aware of what there is to do in any given moment, and that’s what I do with well-placed intentions and precise timing. Let’s pretend that I am almost always sure of a perfect outcome in almost all the things that I set out to do.
Or…… let’s not!
The secret stamp of imperfection accompanied me through my trials and travels, even as an adult. I hid from it, but it waited patiently for my inevitable reappearance. I yelled at it, but it was unperturbed by my anger. I tried to run away from it, but it always caught up.
If we are lucky, when we are grown up, we can set up our “perfect” nest, just as we wish it to be, a refuge from the throws of spontaneous change that threaten our “perfect” world. And if we are lucky, it lasts a while. But life is inconstant, and life is relentless. It seeps in through the basement floor, it crawls in through the cracks in the walls, it even enters stealthily through the front door with our children as they begin to have experiences apart from us. And we are forced once again to see ourselves against the backdrop of an outside world, to re-question our choices, and to face one more time what we believed we’d never have to face again.
I am not perfect!
If I should indeed be comforted in the knowledge that I do not have to be nor was I meant to be perfect, and yet I am in fact still in a state of discomfort, unaffected even by the beauty of unconditional love, then something in the relationship between me and the idea of perfection must change.
A long time have I taught different forms of performance and the artistic languages of expression, a domain where the idea of an objective perfection is not only out of place, but injurious to its essence and meaning. I have observed the struggles of students, young and old, rushing toward some external pinnacle of perfection, lashing out at themselves (or each other) for every transgression, holding themselves tightly in an invisible controlled casing, waiting until they have reached said pinnacle, where they will finally discover………..their freedom. And though they must run, a pressure cooker full of judgement is indelibly strapped to their bodies, as it is to their spirits, holding them back, weighing them down. And time is their enemy.
We are bred to respect competitiveness and mistrust cooperation. We are taught to revere hierarchical structures and berate communal constructions. We applaud the affluent and shame in indigent. We deify the “first” and demonize the “last”. We proclaim a passion for individualism yet admonish the ill-fitting individual.
This striving for “Perfection”, this score-taking of progress, this constant arranging on a scale from one to ten, this neurotic room-scanning to discover who is better and who is worse, has not helped us, but rather hindered us in our human development, both as individuals and as a species. This incentive of perfection has kept us infighting where collaboration would have brought us miles forward. It has made us ready to trample one another rather than lift one another up. It has created attitudes of arrogance and entitlement, and, in contrast, bitter and angry hearts. And, worst of all, it has wasted the gifts of so many beautiful souls who sang another song, sketched another design, spoke new poeticisms, who perceived new knowledge, new wisdoms, new understanding.
We will not rid ourselves of the word or the idea, it is too old and too deep. But I propose a new definition:
Perfection is not a societal judgement. It is a personal matter.
Perfection is not a rigid design. It is a shape-shifting entity that changes as we change with the seasons and tides of our lives.
Perfection is not a cold set of technical properties. It combines skills and abilities with the individual heart and soul.
Perfection is not measurable in objective terms. It is indelibly connected to an enlightened state of wisdom and understanding.
Perfection is the light that keeps us calm and the darkness that lets us rest. It is the sun and rain that feed and nourish us, the trees that shade us and the grass that softens our steps. It is listening and speaking truth. It is courtesy and awareness. It is to be found on all roads travelled through this life and on all diverging pathways through the unknown. It is what I sense in the deepest part of myself and what I discover in the unfolding of who I was meant to be.