Chapter 3.Self-Knowledge: Behaviours


Reasons to give up on Perfection

Part of our problem as a species is that we’re troublingly good at making things perfect. We can set our minds on an extraordinary goal and – with heroic sacrifice, thousands of hours of effort, many wrong turns and periods of intense despair – we can reach the target. We can pull off a masterwork, we can exceed all normal expectations, we can triumph and awe – and advance humankind.

And unfortunately, it appears that in many fields, we’re getting ever better at reaching perfection. What we call the modern age has – from technology to cookery, hostelry to sport, fashion to medicine – witnessed an unparalleled increase in the number and scale of our achievements. To begin a list of these, in aviation, we launched the perfect passenger plane, the Airbus A350 in 2013; in football, Brazil’s Carlos Alberto kicked the perfect goal into the Italian net in the 1970 World Cup Final; in engineering, Michel Virlogeux designed the perfect bridge to span the Tarn valley in southern France in 2004, Coco Chanel introduced the perfect black Ford Dress in 1926; Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh designed the perfect vaccine for polio in 1952; Dieter Rams designed the perfect radio, the RT20 Tabletop, for Braun in 1963; Stephen Shore took the perfect photograph at the Causeway Inn, Tampa, Florida in 1977; the Swiss graphic designer, Adrian Frutiger, designed the perfect font – Univers – in 1957; the baker Pierre Hermé designed the perfect pastry in 2005, the 2000 Feuilles Praliné, made of piedmont hazelnut and thin layers of Brittany crêpe dentelle; in 1989, Intel released the perfect microprocessor, the 80486; W. H. Auden wrote the perfect poem, ‘Musée de Beaux Arts’ in 1938; Rutherford made the perfect analysis in physics with his model of the atom in 1911; Aman opened the perfect hotel, the Aman Giri in Utah in 2009; Tony Banks and Peter Gabriel of Genesis wrote the perfect  song Firth of Fifth in 1973 and Eric Rohmer made the perfect film, The Green Ray in 1986.

Viaduc de Millau, 2004

Chanel Ford Dress, 1926

Dieter Rams, RT20 Tabletop, Braun, 1963

A350 Airbus, 2013

Pierre Hermé, 2000 Feuilles Praliné, 2005.

The 80486, by Intel, 1989

It is of little use telling a species like ours that aiming hard at perfection might be impossible or inadvisable; that perfectionism, the grasping and aching for the transcendent and the flawless,  might be a foolish quest – as the final chords of Bach’s Dona Nobis Pacem echo around King’s College Chapel or the cargo doors of the Space Shuttle Atlantis open to release the Galileo Spacecraft, on its way to map the moons of Jupiter. 

Nevertheless, it’s crucial to insist: the quest for perfection – uncritically held up as a collective goal by the modern age – carries grave dangers. We may all have perfect moments, we may all at points pull off perfect feats, but it is in the power of no one who has ever walked the earth to have a perfect life.

We keep being surprised by the point. At the more sublime end of the spectrum, we read biographies of great artists and scientists, chefs and engineers, and profess to be surprised when we hear of ugly divorces and selfish friendships, distasteful politics and poor parenting. We somehow keep expecting that a human can be as perfect as what they create; we don’t seem to understand that the reason why perfect objects and achievements have such a hold on us is precisely because we are, as a race, and as individuals, inherently imperfect. We would not be so moved by the music of Bach or the poetry of Auden if this level of perfection were our usual home. Our tears are telling us a crucial fact: both that perfection is what we aspire to and also that it is something we only ever have a tenuous hold on. We cannot dwell on the icy brilliant peaks, we ascend to them at rare moments – but our real dwelling place is in the marshy lowlands and the murky forests. We have feet of clay and, only at a very few moments, damaged angels’ wings.

It’s this duality which the modern age has left us so confused about. It has generalised outwards from humanity’s most heroic feats, it has tried to democratise genius and inspiration, talent and goodness – leaving us to imagine that human life itself might be a perfectible phenomenon, only waiting for a few more discoveries and technical innovations until every crease has been ironed out and the pathway to a brightly lit, immortal zone is clear.

It sounds kind but the effect may be catastrophic, for we suffer dearly at an individual level from our collective dreams. How insufficient and humiliated we have to feel in a perfectionist world to be only ever that most modest of things: us – with our only too well known flaws, compulsions, errors and absurdities, that can strike as unforgivable as we survey them in the restless hours of another damnable night. What we need so badly are reminders that being the way we are was always the only possibility; that to stumble and miss, to regret and to understand too late are inherent features of the patchily evolved largely foolhardy animal we are.

Other eras, more primitive than our own in their technologies, less graced with achievements of perfection, understood the point better than we do. The Ancient Greeks created the artistic genre we know today as ‘tragedy’ to remind themselves that the highest humans, the great warriors and statesmen, poets and orators, were in the end all profoundly flawed – and never more than when they failed to accept that they might be so. The bloodsoaked stories of tragedy that unfolded on stages across the Peloponnese under the Attic sun told of errors of judgement, blindspots, excessive tempers and stubborn sides of character that unwound the lives of the most able and admirable of people. The moral was clear: no one escapes the general law of humanity, that we cannot get through this life without significant lapse and misdeed, that we are inherently inadequate and damaged – and that true wisdom begins the moment we fully take this on board about ourselves and others, and from which can spring self-forgiveness, pity and compassion.

The message from the Judeo-Christian tradition was as solemn and as cautionary. No human can ever be perfect and that to imagine we can be is to offend against the very laws of the universe. There is only perfect being, and our brief highpoints are only ever the result of his grace. For the theologian St Augustine, writing in the dying days of the once proud Roman Empire, every human is marked by the taint of ‘original sin.’ The phrase is dated, peculiar but enormously useful. The transgressions of Adam and Eve mean that all their descendants, not just this or that unlucky one, but all of us cannot expect to lead perfect lives. We are sinners casting around on our knees for redemption.

The Buddhists, thousands of miles away, though at a similar time, made an identical point. For them too, life was a conclusively imperfect journey, always marked by suffering, always riddled with delusion and fallacy. To remind themselves of this, Zen in Japan initiated an artistic tradition which foregrounded, and learnt to see the distinctive beauty in, imperfect things: lopsided pots still marked by the craftsman’s hands, roof tiles stained with rain, garden paths overgrown with moss, rainy days in which the pine trees appear only fleetingly through bands of mist. To sense the gap between the more perfectionist sections of the West and the more modest Zen Buddhist potters, we need only compare an ideally symmetrical soup tureen from the royal Sèvres Porcelain workshop with a tea bowl from Japan in the same period. The soup tureen is quietly certain that life is a perfectible journey; as we ladle our vegetable consommé, it delivers a sermon on ideals of balance and harmony; but in Japan, as we raise an endearingly misshapen cup of green tea to our lips, we’re hearing a perhaps yet more valuable lesson still about the gracious acceptance of our always unruly and fractured selves.

We may have made some perfect things; but we should never (unless a Zen Buddhist craftsman is responsible) expect of ourselves what we would expect from an object, let alone a scientific formula, a rocket or a song. We should not judge ourselves by the standards of our finest creations.

To counter the temper of modernity, a philosophy of im-perfectionism should be applied across our lives. In relationships, it becomes the bedrock of tolerance and good humour. A person who announced themselves on an early date as a creature of near perfection – and improving every day – would swiftly prove insufferable and always remain hard to know. A sense of another’s reality only emerges when we can admit to our mutual vulnerability and fear. What we seek in love is not so much a perfect being as someone who can warn us of their multiple flaws with insight, in good time, and when they have as yet not ruined too much of our lives. And on the receiving end of love, we crave not so much for someone to be awed by us as for them to see our failings clearly yet to treat them with generosity and warmth.

At work, a philosophy of imperfectionism prepares us for how long anything half way decent will take to produce. We are not expecting the novel, business plan, painting or power station to be right immediately; we have budgeted for lengthy frustration and are therefore readier to take the inevitable reversals in our stride. What ends up looking perfect will, and must, demand long periods when it feels ugly, confused and beyond rescue. We don’t give up so easily – because we never expected things to be other than hellish.

In relation to ourselves, a philosophy of imperfectionism inspires the kind of self-compassion that keeps people out of hospital. Of course we have messed up large sections of our lives, missed crucial opportunities and done some properly ridiculous things. It is hard for anyone with imagination to look back and not feel intense distress at who they have been. But there is a difference between taking responsibility for errors and feeling that these must place us beyond redemption. To believe in human perfection isn’t a bracing but salutary ideology; it’s a path to breakdown and, at moments of serious mishap, suicide. There is nothing wise about failing to accept of what modest stuff we’re made.

Finally, a philosophy of imperfection is what small children hunger for. The English child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott was struck by how many of the parents he saw worried acutely that they had not been perfect in their roles: they admitted guiltily to having been sometimes tired, intemperate, disinterested and cynical. Winnicott playfully congratulated them. Children with perfect parents, he remarked, are on the road to psychosis. The task of a parent isn’t to be perfect, he explained, it’s to prepare a child as gently but as thoroughly as possible for the deeply imperfect conditions of life: to help these idealistic small people to accept that frustration is endemic, that bowls fall of tables and shatter, that teddy bears lose their eyes, that car journeys are too long, that parents are astonishingly annoying, that mum is daft and dad a fool, that there is too much homework, that many experiences are bitter and that everyone must eventually get old and die. More than that is not required, insisted Winnicott – in Playing and Reality, a book published in 1953 (the year colour television, that marvellously perfect box, was invented). A parent only needs to be, in his famous formulation, ‘good enough’. We can be good enough parents, workers, spouses, friends and humans; that will be sufficient. 

The modern world has done us an enormous service in encouraging us to raise our ambitions; it is in danger of creating mass psychosis by failing to remind us clearly enough that we are also – invariably and continuously – silly, mistaken and beautifully irredeemable fallen angels.

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