“In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.” – Alice Walker
Many times I have struggled with perfection. Always believing in doing my best in the teaching profession, I strove for the absolute best I could give my students. Anxiety and stress took its toll as I learned that even one's best is not good enough for everyone in class. In fact, the realization made me work even harder to try to overcome barriers I thought, at the time, I could eventually defeat. In the end, I had to make many concessions to my own imperfections while acknowledging the imperfections of those around me. I now believe perfection, or anything close to it, is a state of fantasy held in the minds of stubborn human beings.
Imperfection and Society
I believe that Purdue President Steven C. Beering is a very wise man. He once told new graduates during his final commencement speech (August 6, 2000) that they need to be tolerant of imperfections, but always strive for excellence. In fact, Beering told the graduates that the success of Western civilization is, in part, an acceptance of imperfection.
"When you examine these words (imperfection and excellence), our tolerance of a society that is less than perfect is at the very heart of the American way of life," Beering said. "Now, this does not mean that we should discourage excellence or foster mediocrity. On the contrary, today we are here to celebrate excellence and the fulfillment of human potential. You students who will receive new Purdue degrees in a few minutes have worked very hard to make yourselves the best you can be, just as this institution strives to reach new levels of achievement every day."
Beering noted that plurality and diversity are the cornerstones of our society. According to Beering,"The genius of the American way of life is that it recognizes that there are many answers, not just one. Instead of consolidating power at the center, we strive to release that power, the initiative, the creativity and the productivity of our people. This has produced over the years the most prosperous and successful society in the world's history."
Beeing went on to describe our means of governing ourselves with all its imperfections is still strong, effective, and flexible. To further this illustration, Beering stated, "The preamble to our Constitution -- one of my favorite pieces of American literature -- contains one of the most eloquent statements of a plan of action ever written. Listen to these simple words: 'The goal is to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty.'" The concept is simple, durable, and has grown even stronger over more than two centuries surviving war, economic catastrophe, ineptitude, immorality, and corruption at the highest levels. (Steven C. Beering, Purdue News, August 6 2000)
And that is it -- the Preamble and the rest of the Constitution say nothing about making America a world power, giving it prosperity or material benefits, addressing the concerns of special interest groups or even uplifting its citizens morally. Those things are left to individual initiative and creativity within the law.
Imperfection and Aesthetics
David E.W. Fenner ("In Celebration of Imperfection," The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Volume 38, 2004) wrote that he loved to listen to classical guitar. Fenner said, "The song matters less to me than the instrument. Played well, with dexterity and focus, it produces a sound that is rich and resonate, at the same time deep and acute. But if one listens carefully, there are more sounds being produced than simply the ones the player intends to produce. No playing of the classical guitar escapes the inclusion of the sounds of the player's fingers as they slide up and down the ridged strings which can at times be as loud and as present as the notes themselves." Oh...imperfections?
Those who appreciate classical guitar music probably "tune out" the sliding sound. Fenner explained, "Aesthetic attention is purposeful; we attend to those aspects of an aesthetic object that contribute positively to the experience. We select out those aspects that we deem to be irrelevant to the positive experience. This is surely the way it is with the sliding sound. We ignore it, and if we do hear it briefly, we dismiss it as irrelevant."
Although some other listeners find the sliding sound overwhelming and even grating because, at times, the slide of the fingers on the strings can be high pitched and shrill, these people will never actually enjoy classical guitar -- or much of it -- given their inability to distance themselves sensuously from the sliding sound (the imperfections). They have decided to lower the aesthetic quality of the instrument, or at the very least not to increase the quality and allow it to interfere with attention to the aesthetically conspicuous elements of the object. Do we choose to let similar natural imperfections "get in our way" of living?
David Sherwin ("The Elegance of Imperfection", March 24 2009) said a crucial lesson about craft is this: utility is not contingent on perfection of form. His experiences with elegant crafting -- from the creative brief to user interface design -- have involved abandoning the desire for perfection entirely. He doesn't even push for the perfect state, understanding its unnatural characteristics.
Sherwin used this anecdote, told and retold through translated Japanese literature, or a Zen master who is styaing with a priest at a temple close to Kyoto. The priests and his guests have spent much of the day in the garden -- shaping moss, plucking weeds, gathering leaves in tidy arrangements, all in order to achieve the state of perfection the temple builders had originally designed.
“Isn’t it beautiful,” the priest asked the master…
The master nodded. “Yes…your garden is beautiful; but there is something missing…”
The old gentleman walked slowly to a tree growing in the center of a harmonious rock and moss combination. It was autumn and the leaves were dying. All the master had to do was shake the tree a little and the garden was full of leaves again, spread out in haphazard patterns.
“That’s what it needed,” the master said.
– Janwillem van de Wetering, The Empty Mirror
Two Personal Experiences With Allowing Imperfection
Kristine Kane ("Allowing Imperfection," September 20 2007) stated that one of the best reasons to allow imperfection is when you’ve got a case of the “used-to-be’s.” Kane explained, "The used-to-be’s are the stories we tell ourselves: I used to be so much better at this. I used to be so much thinner than I am now. I used to write every single day and it got so easy! And on and on we go – all the while never starting the very thing that might move us beyond our stuck-ness. The “used-to-be’s” are a trap." This trap is set in unrealistic perfection.
Kane told of being so busy that she became off schedule with her physical work-outs. So, she began "Imperfect Work-Outs." She stayed on the elliptical only about 15 minutes and did only one set of reps with her weights. She heard the voice in her head shouting, “You used to be so much better at this! You used to go 45 whole minutes on that elliptical!” (And on and on.) She continued her "Imperfect Workouts" while this voice shouted – but at least she felt more confident doing them. In essence, she effectively allowed imperfection to push her progress.
Then, there's the story from blog writer Giovanna Garcia. ("Imperfect Action Is Better Than No Action," http://imperfectaction.com/blog) Giovanna was dancing with others at a party, and, as her custom, showed a free-style approach of interpretative joy in her dance. Garcia stated, "Later that evening a beautiful woman (Dee Dee) came up to me and she said, 'You are a little nutty! Most woman would try to dance sexy on the dance floor, but you looked like you are just having fun. Do you not care about what people think?'
Linehan believes that there is always a place farther from where you are right now that you might be able to get to if you could step away from the known. In other words, there is value in doing things where success cannot be guaranteed. Linehan said, "In a sense, perfection is an addiction to the known. However, by always keeping your feet planted firmly in certainty you lose the excitement of possibility, trading what could be for what you know can be."
Are human beings really meant for critical perfection? According to Linehan, being human means we must learn to revel in imperfection, so, as learners and adapters, we become increasingly creative and flexible. This allows us all to survive and thrive in our environments.
Amanda Linehan (November 2, 2009) offers the following words of advice.
"If you make a mistake – go easy on yourself. You can always fix it.
If you fail at something – go easy on yourself. You can always try again.
If you have faults (of course you do!) – go easy on yourself. You have strengths too.
If you are imperfect – go easy on yourself. Everyone else is in the same boat."
When you do something wrong, remember the things you do right. Eventually, your wrongs can become rights.