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23:56 minutes - 9.58 MB - In Praise of Imperfection .mp3 file.
Presented May 6, 2007, by Susan Morrison Hebble
"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is a great accomplishment." Ralph Waldo Emerson.
All my life, I've been an imperfectionist. And I think I have my father-and the fact that we had one bathroom in our house-to thank for that.
Growing up, I had a running feud with my dad about toothpaste and toilet paper. He could not understand why I squeezed the toothpaste from the middle of the tube, rather than from the bottom of the tube. Well, I was tired. My goal was to brush my teeth and be on my way. What did I care about tubes? He also insisted that new toilet paper rolls go in the holder so the paper would fall over the top of the roll, rather than fall under it. If I put the new roll in at all, I most often put it in with complete disregard to his specifications. On a regular basis, he'd patiently point out my significant failings in bathroom management, and I'd patiently listen and ignore him. When I felt like standing up for myself, my standard reply was a stomp of the foot, a flick of my hair-which was much longer then-and a very vocal "NOBODY'S PERFECT!!!!" Little did he or I know that we were establishing and reinforcing what would become a significant aspect of how I approach life.
Now, this talk is not titled "In DEFENSE of imperfection", and to tell you the truth-full disclosure-I have more than once pointed out to my own kids the efficiency of squeezing the toothpaste tube from the bottom rather than the middle of the tube. But they seem to care about bathroom management about as much as I did. . . .
The title reflects instead a much more comprehensive idea, and it IS one I've lived by, without really even knowing it.
I've always worked hard at things I've loved, and I've always fallen short of perfection: I made my way up to 2nd chair in the flute section of the band and orchestra in high school, but never first chair; I was just .1 away from graduating with high honors in college; I am happy to run an 8-minute mile, but accept that a 4-minute mile is not in my future. And to tell you the truth, I consider these successes, not failures. And there is a subtle distinction between success and perfection, though I suspect we often see the two ideas as synonymous. But, as psychologist Harriet Braiker asserts, "Striving for excellence motivates you; [while] striving for perfection demoralizes you." I did my best and grew from these experiences. But there are an awful lot of people in our culture who are discontented with "almosts" or "seconds", who continue to strive for perfection, without realizing that it is one of the great illusions of our time.
Ours is a culture increasingly obsessed with perfection. I won't blame the media for this problem-they give us what we want, after all-but the media certainly reflects our obsession with the "perfect" image. I admit that sometimes when I'm watching CNN, or even the Weather Channel, I stop listening and become fascinated with the female newscasters' hair or jewelry or lipstick-can she be real? I wonder , or is she one of the Stepford Wives who has stepped out?
Look at the magazines in the checkout line at County Market next time you're there: The headlines insist that perfection is attainable: the models, male or female, gracing the covers are perfect (but let's ignore make up, lighting, airbrushing and the team of experts who made them so); the articles promise to tell you how to have perfect hair, do perfect make up, develop the perfect body, create the perfect relationship, raise the perfect children, make the perfect meal, and keep the perfect home in perfect order. Underlying the bright and enthusiastic and seductive promises is the message that we are not perfect, but we could be! And this message stretches beyond the magazine racks: self-improvement books dominate bookstores, and self-help seminars do a thriving business. And perfection may be only a click away: on-line, you can find the perfect mate at Match.com or the perfect job at monsterjobs.com. Many families also save up for years for the essential vacation in DIsneyWorld-acres of perfection in the land of perpetual sunshine, Disney advertises itself as "the happiest place on earth."
And then there's the idea that "more" stuff will get us closer to some sort of perfection: in my neighborhood in suburban Chicago, we have a proliferation of new homes replacing smaller homes-the new homes, usually in an almost exaggerated Georgian or Tudor style, fill up as much of the lot as village specifications allow, resulting in an odd mix of 5 or 6000 square foot McMansions adjacent to 1500 or 2000 square foot 50-year-old tidy ranch homes. And the families that populate the new homes appear to "have it all"-they seem to be beautiful, successful people with beautiful gifted children. And they have lots of really cool stuff-granite countertops, below zero freezers, built in Weber Grill systems, Range Rovers, and really great tans. Just like those magazines promised.
But an unease runs through much of our culture. For her book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, journalist Judith Warner interviewed dozens of middle class women in their 30s and 40s-women like me, women like many of you sitting before me, women like the one with the great tan in the McMansion. She found that they were largely contented but perhaps only superficially so. As interviewees got past the "everything's fine" opening statement, they began to open up to Warner in surprising ways. Here is what some of them said:
'I fear I cannot love enough or in the right way or in the right amounts . . . that I am not sure I know how to be what my kids and husbands need me to be . . .'
'There are crumbs under my toaster I want to weigh 125 pounds I want my baby to be very happy . I want to spend enough time with my husband . . . have time to myself read, tend to my nails maybe take a stroll in the park? '
'I put all my inadequacies in a row in the morning. All the things in my life that I'm not doing perfectly. My house isn't decorated enough for Halloween. I didn't really celebrate enough this big promotion my husband had at work. I have all these baby presents I haven't sent out. I should be making napkin rings with my kids.' (40)
Warner's book is, in part, an attempt to define what she calls "a kind of too-muchness, An existential discomfort" (4) not only in women, but throughout American culture.
And I think we are beginning to see a collective reaction to the drive for what is really an arbitrary idea of perfection. And we can see that we are reaching a tipping point on a daily basis. One of the most telling signs that the elusiveness of perfection and the promise of it run side by side is in the fact that our generation has "earned the dubious distinction of being the first generation ever to register an 'epidemic' of eating disorders" (Warner 164). Indeed, one of the most common characteristics among bulimics and anorexics is perfectionism. And one of the hottest medical fields of our time is plastic surgery-can't exercise your way to perfect thighs? Then try liposuction. Like everything about your looks except your nose? Go under the knife. And the fear of imperfection is not gender-specific-more men than ever are seeking plastic surgery, and more men than ever are being diagnosed with eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, depression and anxiety.
And most alarming is the fact that the cultural push for perfection now permeates our children's lives. When most of us were growing up, we strove to attain a 4.0/4.0 GPA. Now, that's not good enough. Most high schools "weigh" grade point averages based on the levels of difficulty of courses. So the top students of a high school may earn, say, a 5.0/4.0, which means the 4.0 students are now in the middle of the pack! As one pundit said, "When you aim for perfection, you discover it's a moving target." Similarly, what used be extracurricular activities-sports, music, theater, for instance-are now intensely competitive venues for kids to excel in. The result is a 12-year-old specializing in, say, tennis who has a private instructor, personal trainer, and tournaments hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from home.
Now I don't want to begrudge the parents or the child who loves tennis, nor do I assert that competition is necessarily a bad thing, but pediatricians and child psychologists are becoming vocal about the effects such intense competition is having on our children: more children are on medication than ever before to control behaviour, anxiety, and depression; And more children than ever before are undergoing surgery for sports injuries heretofore seen only in adults. For instance, one of the most common surgeries for athletic teen-aged girls is to repair a torn ACL, an injury common among professional soccer players. And the perfection obsession for kids is image-oriented as well-bizarre and disconcerting beauty pageants for kids-boys and girls-are an extreme example. But I have also overheard 1st grade girls talking about eating salads because they have fewer calories than hamburgers, seen girls ten and younger getting manicures and pedicures with Mom, and witnessed a gaggle of 'tween girls at a "makeover party" at a salon. Both genders have available fantasy sports camps, where they can learn basketball pointers from, say, the Chicago Bulls. And magazines once marketed for adult women have found a thriving nitch among teens and tweens-Elle Teen and Teen Vogue are two examples that hook children as young as 10 onto the ideas that they are not pretty enough/smart enough/nice enough, but they could be if only they read the magazine!
But what is perfection? Certainly in the context presented above, "perfection" is an idea, an elusive idea, arbitrarily created and defined by a culture that seeks to find ways, perhaps, to measure success or happiness or worthiness. But spiritually, perfection is immeasurable, untenable. Those who believe in God might argue that He is perfection. Humanists might suggest that love is perfection. And love has nothing to do with a great haircut or money. In one of my favorite books, The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupery suggests this idea when he writes "All that is essential is invisible to the eye." Ralph Waldo Emerson posits, I I think, that perfection is in the Oversoul, that essence which is at once us and not us, nature and transcendence. But Emerson also asserts that imperfection is the mark of the world: "There is a crack in everything God made," he wrote in his Journals. Echoing that sentiment, in The Blessings of Imperfection, UU minister G. Peter Fleck writes this:
The only time the world was perfect was before it was created. When it was still but an idea, a glint in the creator's eye. But when it was put together in matter when it materialized, it was no longer perfect; it was good. It was as good as possible. (qtd in Searl)
If we are to find a concrete manifestation of perfection anywhere, we would look to nature. The Dogwoods at full bloom suggest perfection; a sunset caught at the right moment at the right place suggests perfection; the snowflake, just as it falls, just before it melts or merges with its billion brethren, suggests perfection. And these things are timeless, universal, temporal, and completely beyond the control of the hand of humankind.
Think about it: perfection is not part of our make up. Indeed, achieving perfection might be the death of us; it is a notion antithetical, really, to the Unitarian Universalist idea of seeking, always, seeking to make the world a better place, to continually renew the spirit. . . but also to celebrate humanity. And humanity, by definition, is imperfect!
Henry Miller once wrote, "The imperfections of a [person], [the] frailties, [the] faults, are just as important as [the] virtues. You can't separate them.
They 're wedded." And so here we are. We must not only accept these imperfections, but praise them, celebrate them, enjoy them. But in the intensely fast-paced material world in which we live, how do we do that?
We might look to the Japanese tea ceremony for an example of true reverence of imperfection. The tea ceremony has been a fixture of Japanese culture since the 15th Century. It has evolved little since the 16th Century, when tea master Sen no Rikyu insisted that the ceremony reflect the Zen Buddhist principles of austerity, respect for nature, and appreciation of things ordinary. Rikyu rejected the then popular use of gaudy utensils in settings reflecting wealth and power. Rather, he created a spiritual tea ceremony that requires simplicity and balance.
The ceremony takes place in a separate modest building suggesting the traditional farmer's hut, with a low entry way that forces the guests to bow as they enter, assuring humility. Furnished simply with woven mats for seating, unadorned utensils, perhaps made by the tea-master himself, and flowers arranged naturally in bamboo vases, the space is an oasis of peace and tranquility. The tea may likely be served in a teacup with a crack, for the Japanese treasure such flaws for "[t]he crack is a signature of the cup's creation-a beautiful flaw-that marks the cup's moment of creation and distinguishes it from all other cups" ("What is Wabi Sabi"). The ceremony itself may last four or more hours, with fine and meaningful ritual reflecting the "four principles of tea-harmony (wa), respect (kei), purity (sei), and tranquility (jaku)" ("What is Wabi-Sabi?") The guests focus, then, only on the moment-on the community and spirituality of this group of otherwise disparate souls who have left behind the realities of the material world. At the heart of the tea ceremony is a kind of mindfulness, a deep understanding and acceptance of temporality and of the symbiotic relationship between humankind and nature, humankind and itself.
The Japanese tea ceremony is an incarnation of the Japanese aesthetic known as Wabi Sabi. In a marvelous book called Wabi Sabi: the Japanese Art of Impermanence, Andrew Juniper admits that this aesthetic defies definition but permeates Japanese art, design, literature, and ritual. He describes Wabi Sabi as artistic expression that affords.
An intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world, that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things. (51)
Creams promising to erase age lines don't sell well in Japan, for the Japanese honor wrinkles in one's face as they do the crack in a tea cup. The wrinkles beautify age-they show the wisdom of experience and the humility of age and the universality of mortality.
I am reminded again of my time in the music program in high school. In spite of the ridiculously early hour at which we would have band practice before school, my time in that chair, sharing a stand with either Ruth or JoEllen, was often my happiest of the day. The fact that I was not first chair-or last chair, for that matter-was irrelevant. What mattered was that I was a part of a community that briefly created something beautiful, impermanent, and whole. And I think, too, of what I now find meaningful in the world, what speaks to my spirit-my family, certainly, but most often when they don't even know I'm thinking of them-the turn of Anna's smile, the quirkiness of Sophie's sense of humor, my husband's presence, even when he's half way 'round the world. But also the stuff of nature: the budding of the apple tree in my backyard, the vista from a little park in Door County, the smell of rain on a steamy day. And material things, too: the slightly yellowing keys of this organ on which my grandmother played; the mosaics made up of ancient broken pottery on the Temple of Dawn in Bangkok; the unpredictability of jazz, the brilliant imprecision of a Matisse painting, and the serenity and community of a certain weathered front porch on Maine Street. None of these things is either perfect or permanent; in fact, I am sure most of them go completely unnoticed. And therein lies their poignancy.
So I offer praise for imperfection. Imperfection promises not status, success, or enviable thighs. Rather it promises potential and sweet anticipation, transformation and growth. Imperfection makes us individuals; it may even define our strengths and virtues. It shows our age, our experience, our frailty, our wisdom. It allows for humor and creativity. Perhaps most importantly, accepting our own imperfections allows us to accept those of others, those of nature, those of time. Therefore, imperfection assures compassion and sympathy, generosity and humility. For to be imperfect is to be human, and to be human is itself divine.
Juniper, Andrew. Wabi Sabi: the Japanese art of Impermanence. Tokyo: Tuttle,
Searl, Ed. A Place of Your Own. Berkely Press, 1998.
Warner, Judith. Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. New York: Riverhead, 2006.
"What is Wabi Sabi?" Noble Harbor Tea Services. 30 May 2007.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.