What’s so great about perfection?

Rev. Yme Woensdregt, pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook, writes the regular Religion column.

Several months ago, I wrote a column in which I suggested that it’s okay to settle for being good enough, rather than always striving to be excellent. It seems to me that part of growing up, part of becoming mature, is knowing when to quit striving, and when to settle for good enough.

I thought of that again when I read a column by another religion writer, Tom Ehrich. He tells a story about being unable to go to upstate New York with his family. What he did was to take a long walk along the Hudson River, and then sit beside an open window overlooking the apartment house courtyard, where he sat in a cool breeze.

He writes, “No, it wasn’t the same as a screened porch upstate. But it worked. Why? Because I made it work. I was motivated to step away from my desk and do something different.

“Could I have had a more perfect day? Sure, I suppose so. But I didn’t need perfection. I just needed something different. Yes, I was ‘settling,’ as they term it. But that’s part of maturity: knowing that progress matters more than perfection. Sometimes you don’t get exactly what you want, and making do can be enough. Tweaking the day can make it a better day.”

The trouble is that all around us, we are urged to attain perfection or excellence. Many people continue to chase perfection and refuse to compromise with realities that fall short of this unattainable goal. We are brainwashed into thinking that “good enough” is just another way of talking about failure.

But it’s not.

Making the best of a reality that is often beyond our ability to change is a sign of becoming mature. It’s the two–year–olds who stomp their feet, cry buckets of tears, and have a temper tantrum when things don’t go their way. Those who have grown up don’t do that.

Wisdom and maturity would say: Sit beside an open window and relax. You can’t control everything. Do what you can, make do, and then enjoy it.

It takes the pressure off when we are able to come to terms with the reality which is ours.

Partly that’s common sense. But there is more to it. Perfection is a savage god. Trying to worship at the altar of this god will only destroy us. As I mentioned in that previous column, we can’t maintain this kind of neurotic driven–ness that demands constant improvement. It’s impossible. We are not gods with infinite resources. We are finite, limited human beings. That is simply part of our reality. Coming to terms with it is a sign of good mental health.

I write this just after the latest scandal in Major League Baseball. Top athletes, who are paid an obscene amount of money because they are able to hit a small white ball hundreds of feet, have been exposed for using drugs to enhance their natural abilities. They cheat. They will do whatever it takes to win.

Perfection is a savage god. They’ve been caught, and now their reputation is in tatters. More tragically, their body will pay the price long after their lucrative contracts have expired. And even worse, they have been isolated from others in their striving beyond reasonable limits to be the best.

Perfection is a savage god. It demands a physical cost, a social cost, a personal cost. Perhaps most damning of all, perfection corrupts your soul by making an idol of your tastes and preferences. Perfection can make you a monster as you focus on this one goal so that the rest of life falls away like so much dross. That kind of single–mindedness exhibits the same kind of monstrous thought processes as the religious extremists who will blow up children in order to defend their ideology.

I have mentioned before that a dozen or so years ago, I was diagnosed as clinically depressed. One of the symptoms of my depression was “perfectionism”. Good enough wasn’t good enough for me. And I was never satisfied. The savage god sucked my soul dry until I reached a point where I thought I was worthless.

I’ve learned a healthier way since then. I’ve learned that often good enough is just fine. I make do as best I can. And you know, that’s not so bad.