Monday, February 19, 2007

Perfection’s Paradox

Isn’t life about striving for perfection? We all dream of the perfect spouse, the perfect job, the perfect home. Perfection is the stuff dreams are made of.

Striving for perfection is natural. We are instinctively driven to fulfill our ambitions. But perfection is extremely uncommon, and something always goes wrong. Even small mistakes can motivate people to obsess about perfection. In the process, our desire for excellence morphs into perfectionism.

Unfortunately, perfectionism is a corrosive force. Perfectionism destroys relationships. Parents of prodigies can push their children to burnout and depression. “Bridezillas”, brides obsessed with making the perfect wedding, will often achieve flawless, but joyless wedding ceremonies. Perfectionism is a bad mix with human frailty.

Perfectionism is also the ugly side of idealism. Communism aspired to create a perfect society, where everything is shared and all men are equals. Instead, it created a totalitarian nightmare, where all men were equally enslaved. Cults promise a perfect world, if one is willing to follow a strenuous regimen. In actuality, by demanding perfectionism, these cults brainwash their followers by ensnaring them in a web of guilt. Mass movements that demand universal perfection usually end up wrecking havoc.

Paradoxically, perfectionism is an obstacle on the road to perfection. On the other hand, the road to perfection is usually found through imperfect means. Maimonides notes that even the Torah will adopt flawed ancient institutions in order to achieve progress. This practical search for attainable growth underlies a great deal of Halacha, where there are at times different requirements depending on the situation. In an imperfect world, perfection is sometimes best found by making compromises.

It is easy for us to get overwhelmed by perfectionism, obsessed by perfect dreams about what we really should achieve. That is why one must remember Rabbi Tarfon’s admonition that “it is not your responsibility to finish the task, but you are not free to give up on it, either”. In life we have enormous responsibilities; each of us has to transform the world. Yet at the same time, we cannot allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by these responsibilities. Perfectionism is the pursuit of impossible dreams. True human perfection is the patient and capable management of imperfection. This is perfection’s paradox.

Failure is the best test of true perfection. After a defeat, perfectionists will quit, paralyzed by evidence of their own imperfection. Only those willing to embrace their own imperfection have the flexibility to progress after a painful setback.

There’s an Alcoholics Anonymous slogan that counsels “progress, not perfection”. This critical reminder cautions recovering addicts not to quit recovery after a relapse. But this is also a wonderful reminder to all of us who are overwhelmed by the demands of life, that we don’t have to finish the task, all we have to do is make progress.

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