Saturday, March 19, 2011

Perfect Lies

They creep in when I am tired. They never come in through the front door. Always one will scratch at a screen on one side of my mind while its mate scampers in the open window opposite. Pesky little creatures, they will run about my mental house turning over furniture, breaking mirrors and creating havoc. Sometimes they leave quickly. Sometimes they remain for days on end. Sometimes they settle in and take up permanent residence.

There are many types of lies, but the most numerous for me are those based on that master lie of lies - perfection. For example, the chairs in the living room of my thoughts are sturdy, covered with many different textures and colors, and are shaped for the contours of a wide range of bottoms. Some of them rock a bit due to irregularities in the length of their legs, but on the whole they provide comfortable seating for me and any guests who happen to drop by. I have come to cherish them as much as, if not more than, longtime friends and family.

This happy state of affairs is disrupted as soon as perfection enters. Perfection invariably casts a harsh, judgmental eye over my collection. It claims to hold the one true measure and standard of “chair-ness” and uses this tool to assess the qualities of any chair on which it happens to sit. In smug, self assurance, perfection pronounces the endless ways my mental furniture fails to measure up; turning every characteristic into flaws and shortcomings. Under its baleful gaze, all my chairs are broken down and scarcely worthy keeping about the place.

“This chair is too mushy. How is a body supposed to find support in this pile of oatmeal?” says perfection when it sits on my dreams of love and kindness.

Moving to my hopes about my writing, perfection will say, “This chair is truly pitiful and narcissistic. Its paint is sloppy. It shows little promise of becoming anything other than a plant stand for cacti – tiny cacti, the variety that never grows but merely sits there in endless contemplation of its insignificant thorniness.”

“Why is this chair even here at all?” perfection says about my joy in science and reason. “This chair isn’t really even a chair. It’s more like an iron bench, a rusty one. How you ever hope to use it as anything other than an instrument of torture is beyond me. Can you not see it is too cold, rigid and ugly for use by anyone who values beauty and inspiration?”

On and on, perfection will rant; removing any and all joy I might take in my furnishings. By the end of a visit by perfection I am ready to burn down the entire house, or at a minimum, commit myself to a hospital for refurbishing. Lately however, I have begun to see that thoughts based on perfection are lies and illusion.

I know of no place in nature where perfection exists. It relies on my believing in some supernatural place of residence – a perfect land containing the true essences of all things; a land from which I and my “pitiful” life have “fallen” to become but pale shadows of the true beauty in their former home. Where this perfect land exists, who requires it to exist and how it is maintained are questions that seem open to considerable debate. Many people claim to know the location of the land of perfection, and are willing, even insistent, on showing me the path for getting there.

Unfortunately, there seems to be considerable disagreement on the matter of perfection’s location and the path to achieving it. To me this illustrates “perfectly” why perfection is more a matter of opinion than a tangible fact. The most “perfect” diamond, a crystal of “pure” carbon, contains at least a few molecules of other elements. A perfect one or a perfect zero has never been measured – each attempt landing somewhere slightly above or below the mark. In computers, this “imperfection” is one of the major causes of program errors. The platinum/iridium bar used as the standard for measuring meters changes over time as molecules are oxidized. No substance is perfectly pure. No action generates perfectly good or perfectly bad outcomes. I may “imagine” or “dream” of descending from a perfect world but doing so is no more fruitful than imagining I have come from a planet inhabited entirely by unicorns.

Knowing this simple fact gives me great comfort. It helps me be gentle with myself and others. It allows me to recognize that none, “not no one, not no how” to quote the guard at the gate of Oz, can claim perfection. My agnosticism about the matter has allowed me to realize that pursuing perfection as a path of happiness makes as much sense as pursuing leprechauns to find their pot of gold. I recognize that it is “possible” that there is a land of perfection. There may be leprechauns. There may even be a pot of gold. There is no way to “perfectly” prove the non-existence of anything. However, based on the evidence and experience I have seen to date I see that the probability of perfection and leprechauns is vanishingly small.

With this knowledge, I can return to my mental home and rest in relative ease. My chairs are not broken. I may choose to refurnish or repaint them from time to time, but I do so as an accommodation and kindness to my guests and the society in which I live. I do not find it helpful to arrange and alter my mental furnishings in pursuit of abstractions such as perfect mental health, perfect emotional sobriety, perfect kindness, perfect enlightenment or any other form of perfect. It is far better for me to appreciate the beauty of my chairs and be grateful for the comfort they provide. I leave perfection to those who can only achieve happiness by constantly striving for ever greater enlightenment, truth, or (insert favorite goal here). Once I was among their number, dreaming of a day when I finally would achieve perfection of some kind or another (even if it was only to be the perfect me). Today I find that pursuing perfection can be an entertaining hobby but that it is a poor career choice. Perfection is a lousy houseguest. I intend to show it the door with ever increasing frequency.

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