Sunday, 12 June 2011

Perfection is a lie

Where does this need to be perfect come from, this need to escape criticism? Why can’t we accept ourselves as we are warts and all and beauty spots too? Why are we trying to become nobody’s? Nobody is perfect.

So many folk seem obsessed with this search for perfection; this quest to live beyond criticism. Why do we need the world to view us as perfect? Do we really think so little of ourselves? 

How many folk long for the perfect body portrayed in our digitally enhanced and airbrushed media? How many of us strive for the perfect family, or job or home that we believe will make us happy?

Perhaps the problem stems from word imperfection itself. For too long we have understood perfection as meaning without fault. The word imperfection actually comes from the Latin “imperfectus” which means incomplete. We human beings are work in progress; all the religious traditions recognise this. The common error has been to link our imperfection – our unfinishedness – with our self-esteem. We humans have made a grave error by suggesting to ourselves and others that to simply be good enough we must be perfect. This has been not only paralysing, but also destructive and it’s time that it stopped. We are good enough; it’s just that we are not perfect.

Sport is obsessed with perfection. A nine dart finish, a 147 break in snooker, a hat trick in cricket, a clean sheet in football. 
The greatest cricketer of them all exemplifies this perfectly, or should I say nearly perfectly. The great Australian batsman Don Bradman is remembered as much for his final failure as his career of incomparable success. In his final test innings he only needed to score four runs to end with a batting average of exactly 100. He failed to do so and was out for nought, a duck. This meant that he finished with an average of 99.94. The next best average in the whole history of cricket is 60. So The Don did not finish with a perfect hundred and for some reason we view this as a failure and not a success. His genius was somehow tarnished because it did not achieve perfect symmetry

It is so easy to see imperfection as a curse! But is it? Did you know that it is an imperfect heartbeat that keeps us alive? Cardiologists are discovering that the heart approaches perfect symmetry and balance only a few hours before we die. I love this it describes everything that is beautiful about our imperfection. As we live and love and laugh and cry; as  we work and play; no matter how well we do, our hearts always maintain a slightly irregular heart beat. There is something so beautiful in the imperfection of this.

In a recent conversation with the Unitarian composer Alan Williams I was told that the most favoured drum machine that creates the beat for rap artists is analogue, which is not quite perfect, as opposed to the perfect rhythm created by a digital one. So not only does a not quite perfect heart beat keep us alive, a not quite perfect beat also seems to connect with us artistically. 

This applies to the physical form too. People who have had ridiculous amounts of plastic surgery do not look attractive they just look inhuman. It’s always people’s little oddities and quirkiness that stand out and draw us in. When we come face to face with so called perfection we do not like it. We recoil from as if it were a hot flame. It does not match our own rhythm or the rhythm of nature. It seems to go against who we truly are.

I love the Japanese concept of Wabi –Sabi, it seems the (im)perfect antidote to all this striving for perfection. Wabi-Sabi is an appreciation of the beauty in the imperfection and incompleteness of things; an appreciation of the beauty in the modesty and humbleness of things; it is an appreciation of unconventional beauty. In Wabi-Sabi beauty is not defined by some lofty arbiters of style like Trinny and Susannah and their ilk. It is found in the real physical world that we all live in; in nature with all its irregularities and flaws. Wabi-Sabi is about accepting the natural cycle of growth decay and death. It is simple and uncluttered and reveres above everything else authenticity. Wabi-Sabi is an understated beauty that just waits to be detected and discovered. It does not seek attention or approval it just is what it is; it does not need to apologise for who or what it is; it is happy with who or what it is. It is what it is.

We are good enough as we are. I do not know whether we are perfect or not, I doubt it to be honest. I do not think we need to be perfect. To be perfect, to be pure, bothers me. How would we measure it in any case? I prefer to be human, warts and all and beauty spots too. I try to love perfectly, without prejudice, but I have yet to achieve even this.

I am happy being somebody today; somebody who delights in the beauty of his imperfection. I love missing my imperfect beats and delight in the finiteness of my humanity. Nobody expects me to be perfect and if they do they will be sadly disappointed.

"I don't give a damn that I never will be worthy
fear is the only enemy,oh,that I still know"


  1. This is one of my favourite folk tales

    Many years ago, in India, a certain servant made a daily visit to a well to bring water for his masters household. He brought the water in two large pots which hung on either end of a pole he carried across his shoulders. One of the pots was flawless and never spilled a drop of water, but the other had a small crack in the bottom and so, at the end of the servant’s two mile walk from the well, it was only half full.
    The perfect pot was very proud of its ability to deliver a full quota of water, but the pot with the crack was ashamed of its imperfections, and one day it spoke to the water carrier: “I want to apologise for being so useless,” it said. “Because of me, you don’t get the full value of your work. I’m letting you down.”
    The water carrier felt sorry for the leaking pot, and replied with a smile. “As we go back to the master’s house, I want you to look at the beautiful flowers along the path.” The cracked pot did as he was asked. The servant was right: there were beautiful flowers along the path, and the old pot was cheered a little by the sight, but the flowers didn’t really make him feel any better about himself. In fact in some ways, they made him feel a little worse: after all, they were colourful and fragrant, whereas he was old and leaky. When they got back to the house, the pot still felt sad because he was only half full and it apologised once again for its imperfections.
    “Did you look at the beautiful flowers on the path as I asked you to?” asked the servant.
    “Yes, I did. They are lovely, but they made me even more aware of my flaw,” said the cracked pot, sadly.
    “Did you notice that they were only on one side of the path – the side I carry you on? I’ve known about your flaw for a long time, and I took advantage of it. I planted some flower seeds on your side of the path and now, each day as I come back from the well, your leak waters the Flowers. Each day I pick some of the beautiful flowers that have grown so well because of you, and use them to decorate our master’s dinner table. Without you being just as you are, we wouldn’t have such beauty in the house.”

  2. Yes I love that story!

    I completely agree with your points about perfection, and I also love the concept of wabi-sabi. The Japanese do not polish their silver, they let it tarnish and enjoy the patina of age on it (they consider polished silver vulgar).

    To be fair to Trinny and Susannah, they try to show people how to work with their so-called imperfections.