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Thursday, November 7, 2013

God Save Us From Perfection!

"This is the very perfection of a man, 
to find our his own imperfections."

 --Saint Augustine

You fret, sweat, and toil over something you want to be perfect in your life. Still, no matter how much you plan and work to achieve the ideal, you can bet on one thing -- something is going to mar the product of your tremendous industry. Understanding any road to the destination of satisfaction is full of potholes becomes the modis operandi of people who know how to "roll."

Where would you be without a drive toward perfectionism? After all, this motivation can provide the driving energy which leads to great achievement. It pushes you to give meticulous attention to detail and helps provide necessary, sustained commitment that insures success. Striving towards the highest attainable standards is admirable, and this view of achieving perfection is healthy and normal.

Although there is a general perfectionism that affects all realms of life, researchers contend there are two distinct types of perfectionism, classifying people as normal perfectionists or neurotic perfectionists. What is the difference between normal and abnormal?

* Normal perfectionists pursue perfection without compromising their self-esteem, and derive pleasure from their efforts. 

* Neurotic perfectionists strive for unrealistic goals and consistently feel dissatisfied when they cannot reach them. In its pathological form, perfectionism is an unhealthy belief that anything less than perfect is unacceptable.

(D.E.  Hamachek, "Psychodynamics of Normal and Neurotic Perfectionism." 
 Psychology 15. 1978)

So, What Is "Perfectly" Acceptable?

In Delta of the Metaphysics, Aristotle describes "perfect" in three shades of one meaning:

1) Which is complete- which contains all the requisite parts;
2) Which is good that nothing of the kind could be better;
3) Which has attained its purpose.

One astute reader, Curtis Edward Clark, used these words to explain the important difference shades of meaning:

"Perfection in #1 means all the requisite parts are there, as when the doctor tell the new mother her child is "perfect." It may not remain that way, but for now it has all its fingers and toes, it's breathing, and it appears healthy. This is 'fairly well subsumed' within #2. #3 means that a thing which has a purpose has completed its purpose, such as an acorn becoming an oak, or a pianist completing Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto such that he receives a standing ovation rather than boos."

Aristotle argues that virtue is achieved by maintaining the Mean, which is the balance between two excesses. According to Aristotle, happiness consists in achieving, through the course of a whole lifetime, all the goods — health, wealth, knowledge, friends — that lead to the perfection of human nature and to the enrichment of human life. It's a balancing act that would be difficult for the Flying Wallendas.  Pursuing the greater good and maintaining balance is painful and requires sacrifice.

The Greatest Perfection Is Imperfection

The parallel existence of two concepts of perfection, one strict ("perfection," as such) and the other loose ("excellence"), has given rise to a paradox: that the greatest perfection is imperfection. This was formulated by Lucilio Vanini (1585–1619), who had a precursor in the 16th-century writer Joseph Juste Scaliger, and they in turn referred to the ancient philosopher Empedocles.  Their argument, as given by the first two, was that if the world were perfect, it could not improve and so would lack "true perfection," which depends on progress.

To Empedocles, according to Vanini, perfection depends on incompleteness ("perfectio propter imperfectionem"), since the latter possesses a potential for development and for complementing with new characteristics ("perfectio complementii").

 It Ain't Over Until It's Over

Happiness in modern America is often conceived of as a subjective state of mind, as when one says one is happy when one is enjoying a cool beer on a hot day, or is out “having fun” with one’s friends. For Aristotle, however, happiness is a final end or goal that encompasses the totality of one’s life. It is not something that can be gained or lost in a few hours, like pleasurable sensations. It is more like the ultimate value of your life as lived up to this moment, measuring how well you have lived up to your full potential as a human being.

"For this reason, one cannot really make any pronouncements about whether one has lived a happy life until it is over, just as we would not say of a football game that it was a “great game” at halftime (indeed we know of many such games that turn out to be blowouts or duds). For the same reason we cannot say that children are happy, any more than we can say that an acorn is a tree, for the potential for a flourishing human life has not yet been realized. As Aristotle says, 'for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.'” 

("The Pursuit of Happiness." 2013)

My Take

Perfection, as understood by many neurotics, is unrealistic. Demanding perfection without compromise is a sure formula for disaster. You cannot be a complete, happy individual without flexibility. Maintaining high expectations with the perception that nothing is good enough results in anger and agitation which produce disappointment and continued frustration.

You must push for being the best you can be. That allows completeness and serves your essential, high purposes. But, at the same time, you must understand that, as a human being, you are incomplete and perfectly imperfect. Everything you do well will likely inflict scars of your battles to maintain a "perfect" balance. These marks are not defects, but instead, they are reminders of work well done.

These later years of my life, I find that perfection scares the hell out of me. The idea that perfect people live perfect lives in their perfect worlds conjures images of the living dead. Perfect people are deceased in the manner that they have attained their end -- they are creatures of their own perceived perfectly attained contentment.

These demigods believe that in their perfection, they shine like solitaire diamonds demanding esteem from all. And, honestly, many people are willing to afford them the undeserved status of precious saints. The American public has been groomed to worship material and superficial perfection.

In reality, any real measure of a perfect life involves a long process of enduring immense pressures and extreme temperatures over a long period of time -- hard times on a soul that resembles an old chunk of coal. The perfectionist cannot comprehend the pluperfect "diamond" of existence because it is something that occurred earlier than the time being considered, when the time being considered is already in the past. Only the Maker defines true perfection and a fall in Eden cost mankind any perfectionist dreams.

Perfection by Robert William Service

If I could practice what I preach,
Of fellows there would few be finer;
If I were true to what I teach
My life would be a lot diviner.
If I would act the way I speak,
Of halo I might be a winner:
The spirit wills, the flesh is weak,--
I'm just a simple sinner.

Six days I stray,--on number seven
I try to be a little better,
And stake a tiny claim on Heaven
By clinging close to gospel letter.
My pew I occupy on Sunday,
And though I draw the line at snoring,
I must admit I long for Monday,
And find the sermon boring.

Although from godly grace I fall,
For sensed with sin my every act is,
'Twere better not to preach at all,
Then I would have no need to practice.
So Sabbath day I'll sneak away,
And though the Church grieve my defection,
In sunny woodland I will pray:
"God save us from Perfection!"

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