On Perfection

Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything.

~ Gustave Flaubert

I’d like to spend a bit of time this morning evolving the concept of perfection. In the abstract, of course, there is no nobler pursuit. In reality, however, the pursuit of perfection can be cancerous. I know the disastrous effects this pursuit can render firsthand- I am a recovering perfectionist.

In the opening quote, Flaubert is speaking only of artists, of course, but there is no greater artist than he who paints himself against the canvas of the world, who seeks to find his place among the stars, or in his own heart. Self-growth is a mantra that always surrounds the swirling deluge of thoughts circling me. There are some who have no desire to improve themselves, and I don’t care to dwell on that type of person. For the rest of us, that improving ourselves every day is tantamount to living a life worthy of... well, life, is axiomatic.

It’s a double-edged sword, this mantra. On one hand, it is the pursuit of perfection that widens our eyes in wonder every morning. On the other, it can be a circular path to walk- when no less than perfection will do, the list of obstacles is, quite literally, never-ending, because our imperfections are infinite. To battle them is to battle infinity itself.

I recently had a conversation with a friend in which I used a bad metaphor to illustrate the challenges we face in the pursuit of self-growth. It may be a bad metaphor, but it is apt. Imagine that your task is to build a spectacular wedding cake. The foundation must be perfectly proportioned if it is to support the rest of, say, a seven-tier cake. Eventually, though, in constantly sculpting and re-sculpting the foundation, you come to realize that the past several hours have passed in this pursuit, and you’re left with little time, and not a fully-realized cake at all, but a near-perfect seventh of a cake.

So it is, I think, in our own pursuits. Each of us looks for a foundation within ourselves to build on. We want to be kind, strong, magnanimous, reasonable, intelligent... the list goes on. We would hardly like to build our very selves on a foundation of flaws, so we seek to correct (or worse, to erase) those imperfections. I am a bit stubborn. I’ve been told that I have to win every argument I enter into. I can on occasion seem too detached. I oversimplify things. Despite my best efforts, I drink entirely too much coffee, go on the offensive when cornered, and worst of all- I often think of my way of doing things as the only correct way. These, to say the least, are shortcomings, imperfections, but they are also a part of who I am. Were I to try to “fix” these things, that endeavor alone would consume my entire life, because they are such an inherent part of my nature. Were I to refuse to accept these things about myself, I would never be able to move onto the second, third, fourth tiers of my cake (me).

This, I think, is the mistake that so many like me make- the vicious cycle that many can’t seem to get past, because they can’t seem to accept that they, as works of art, contain imperfections. How much more valuable, though, are works that contain such imperfections. The concrete example that comes to mind is mass-produced goods. Build a mold, and use it to produce hundreds, thousands, millions of materials with the same qualities, the same advantages, the same intrinsic beauty. Imagine these qualities in, say, Picasso’s works. It’s safe to assume that they would not hold the same monetary value had he devised a way to mass-produce his work, but neither would they hold the same inherent value. So it is with us. Our differences, flaws included, give us value. My mother is the only “my mother.” There is no other, and I can’t imagine I would value her as highly if there twenty of her. My daughter is an endless labyrinth of ideas, emotions, flaws, and triumphs. Again, there is no other, and she is the most valuable thing this universe has ever produced (I may be a bit biased).

For once, I don’t want to dwell on this subject- I’m sure you get the idea. I’d like to invite you to write the rest of this piece. Examine yourself a bit, find those parts of you that are uniquely you, and identify the flaws. Embrace them. Use them to build the foundation of who you will become tomorrow, and build from it. No man or woman has ever existed in a state of harmony with his or her self without first embracing those scars, those imperfections. Find them in yourself, then move on. Perfection does not lie in perfection itself. Perfection exists only in ignorance of itself.

Advance, and never halt, for advancing is perfection.

~ Khalil Gibran

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