Perfection and Its Discontents
Perfection: the state of being absolutely flawless, completely without blemish, 100-percent perfect. Coming from the Latin verb perficere, which means “to do completely.” A pretty common word in the contemporary world, one that is no longer used solely in the extreme, literal sense, as nothing is ever really perfect. I say it when I finish setting the table. Or when I pull a batch of fresh-baked cupcakes out of the oven. Or when I am putting together a particularly dashing outfit for school. I use this word even though I am fully aware that none of these things—the table, the cupcakes, the outfit—is truly perfect. How could they be? There will always be a fork or knife that is slightly askew, an ingredient that is not quite precisely measured, a tiny stain on a cuff or a collar. The superlative nature of the literal definition of the word perfection means that it can never be used in a strictly accurate way, as unadulterated perfection is not something that is attainable, at least not in our mortal realm.
Think about it: The only thing that really could be perfect is something divine, something holy, something without fault or shortcoming, something that simply could not exist under the laws of physics as we currently understand them. Even if you zoom in to the microscopic level, things are still not perfect. If you look at a snowflake under a microscope, you will see millions of tiny cracks and crevices that were formed by the subtle shifting of water molecules as the flake formed high up in the clouds and drifted down through the atmosphere toward the Earth. That seemingly unblemished blanket of crisp whiteness to which you awake on a frigid winter morning is actually composed of billions upon billions of imperfect crystals of ice. Likewise, any drawing of a circle, one of the most basic forms imaginable, will have slight imperfections—some minute warp here or there, some miniscule elongation or compression that keeps it from attaining flawlessness. The perfect circle only exists within a mathematical equation. You cannot draw it, you cannot graph it, you cannot even draft it on a computer, for, even though the digital world might seem to be exempt from the blots and blemishes that mar the physical world in which we live, it, too, falls short of perfection. Look closely enough at that digitally rendered circle and you will see that, instead of being a smooth, mathematically precise form, it is actually comprised of myriad pixels and thus does not exemplify what Plato would call, in his philosophical way, the ideal of a circle. This should come as no surprise. After all, computers were created by humans, and anything created by humans, who are themselves imperfect creatures, will, in one way or another, necessarily fall short of perfection.
So now that we have established the irrefutable fact that perfection does not exist in the world in which we live, where does that leave us? Are we to see the universe as fundamentally, irrevocably flawed? Are we to throw up our hands and renounce all human endeavor as useless, as it is, without exception, ultimately doomed to fall short of some ideal standard? If things that are not totally, completely, utterly, perfect were useless, then the answers to those questions would arguably be yes. However, life—even a good life—does not require perfection. Indeed, humanity, in all its flawed glory, was born of an imperfect world. Millions of years of life-or-death struggles on a planet that is far from perfectly suited to the survival of human beings or, for that matter, of any other organism shaped our species into what it is today, and, while we are not perfect, we are here—we exist!—which, in my mind, obliterates the notion that nothing good can ever come out of an imperfect circumstance.
Still, countless disorders are fueled by the relentless striving for unreachable standards of perfection. Around the world, people see unrealistic lifestyles and body standards on social media—that perfect-looking family on Instagram, the Venuses and Adonises with seemingly flawless faces and figures on Facebook—which causes them to feel bad about the way they look or the way they live. Even the people who post those coveted images perceive themselves as lacking in some way—at least many of them do. For some people, total perfection is the goal, and not attaining it is considered to be a failure, something that these people feel makes them unfit, unworthy, unlovable.
Fortunately, the truth is that not being perfect does not make a person unlovable. If that were the case, then nobody in the history of the world would have ever been loved, and we all know that that is not so. While many people are constantly seeking perfection, there are many others who are able to see past the flaws that are part of every human being and appreciate their fellow Homo sapiens for who they are—thinking, feeling creatures who are making the best of imperfect circumstances and situations and are living their lives the best way they know how. If we let go of the extreme, literal definition of perfection, then we make room for another, kinder, gentler, more open, more forgiving definition, one that is based not on absolute impeccability but on the innate beauty—flawed as it is—of the people, places, things, and ideas that make life worth living. Seen through this lens, the world is full of perfection. Love is perfection. Empathy is perfection. Knowledge is perfection. Courage is perfection. This novel definition of perfection emphasizes and embraces the human side of things. It is a realistic perfection, one that does not drive people to misery because they do not—because they cannot—attain it. We are not mathematical equations. We cannot be smoothed of all our rough patches and jagged edges. But the good news is that we do not need to be. If we accept the idea that nothing can be perfect and, at the same time, adopt this new, more human notion of perfection, then we will be able to find ways to be happy with our imperfect selves living in our imperfect world. Indeed, as we learn to be content with what we have and not to constantly strive for a textbook perfection that we cannot possibly attain, we will, I am certain, begin to see more and more things as perfect—the table with the slightly skewed fork, the cupcake with a bit too much sugar, the shirt with the little stain on the cuff, the love that we feel for our friends and relatives and that they feel for us through all of our slips, trips, and gaffes, with all of our frailties and foibles. These things and many others can be perfect if we choose to see them that way. When we stop seeking perfection, we will find it all around us.
Simon Kaminer is a sophomore at HSMSE in NYC. His passions include the outdoors, learning about historical figures and events, and playing the guitar or other string instruments