Edward Willett

Pondering perfection in an imperfect post

Here’s a rather metaphysical question for you: why do we strive for perfection?

Cold logic tells us that perfection is impossible. As a writer, I know perfectly (sorry) well that I will never in my life write something perfect. In fact, I know logically that it’s impossible to even define what a perfect piece of writing would look like, because there are always multiple ways to write anything, from a simple action to a complex character’s internal monologue, and you can never be certain there might not have been another way to do it that would be better than the way you chose: another way that’s a little bit closer to perfect.

And yet, in my mind, there is an ideal that I’m striving for. (In school and library presentations, I sometimes talk about feeling as if each story idea I’ve come up with is a shining, mirrored sphere, like a giant Christmas ornament: I can see it hanging there in my mind, glittering, unmarred, a thing of perfect beauty…and then I take it down, smash it into shards, and try to glue those shards back together into some semblance of the original perfect object using nothing more than words. The result, if I’m lucky, may be a bit silvery and a bit glittery and more or less round, but it sure as heck isn’t a shining thing of perfect beauty.)

Athletes (I presume, since I ain’t one) strive for a perfect layup, a perfect run, a perfect dive, a perfect pitch, a perfect swing of the bat. Musicians strive for a perfect performance, but having sung all my life as both a soloist and in choirs and musical theatre productions, I can promise you no musician in his or her own mind has ever achieved such a thing, no matter how adoring the crowd’s response might be.

No perfect building has ever been built by even the most talented architect, no perfect painting created by anyone from da Vinci on down, no perfect speech written, no perfect play performed, no…

Well, you get the idea.

And yet, we all have this notion of perfection. We know, or think we know, what a perfect world would look like. Our political parties have different ideas of that world, but those parties exist, in the far-from-perfect world of politics, because at some time in the past groups of people who shared a vision of perfection got together and began striving to achieve it. They’ve fallen short (wow, have they fallen short), but the vision remains.

Our failure to achieve perfection is a constant thorn in our sides. Imperfection makes people upset, depressed, even angry. We even have a saying, “the perfect is the enemy of the good”: our desire for perfection sometimes blinds us to the considerable virtues of the failed effort to achieve it. After all, getting nine-tenths of the way to perfection isn’t bad: an A effort. Yet we still tear ourselves up over not getting that A+.

And yet it’s a good thing we have this longing for perfection, for it is the driving force behind all creative efforts; all of our efforts of any kind. If we lived in a world in which perfection were possible, there would be no need to create anything new, for the perfect version of everything would already exist, and by definition, you cannot improve upon perfection.

But if nothing truly perfect exists, then where does our desire for perfection come from? In an imperfect world, how is it even possible for us to imagine perfection, or think we would recognize it if we saw it? How can we feel so certain that perfection is out there, somewhere, and that we must strive for it, when nothing and no one ever achieves it?

The religious answer is that Perfection exists, and has always existed, in the person of God, and our striving for perfection in all our time-constrained lives is one with our striving to rejoin the Eternal Perfection that created the universe in which we struggle.

The specifically Christian answer is celebrated at this time of year: that once upon a time Perfection, loving its once-perfect but now fallen creation, took on the form of the Imperfect to bridge the gap between Imperfection and Perfection, so that one day the Imperfect may once more be Perfect.

Don’t like the religious answer? Perhaps our sense that perfection is possible and something to strive for is something ingrained in our genes, a product of the evolutionary process that has brought us from simple single-cell slitherers to magnificent multicellular men and women.

Or perhaps there is another answer, one that we don’t know…at least not yet. For perfect understanding of the universe, like all other forms of perfection, eludes us.

Here endeth my post on perfection.

You know, in my mind it was way better.

 

Comments

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  1. Donna Farley Says:

    “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?”–Robt. Browning

  2. 2 Edward Willett Says:

    Well, yeah, if you want to be all like, brief and genius-like, Mr. Browning. :)

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