By Adam J. Pearson
Human beings tend to have a strange fascination with the idea of perfection. We feel pressure to look, act, and be what we and our society consider ‘perfect’ or ideal. When we inevitably cannot meet these impossibly high standards, we suffer. As a result of this suffering, there has been a movement to say that the universe and we are “perfect as we are.” There is some wisdom in this approach as it involves total acceptance and dropping aversion to ourselves and to the universe. However, it seems to me that there is something dishonest about this approach, an element of naive self-deception. To see this, we need to consider the meaning of the word “perfect.”
The word perfect can be defined as being “entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings.” A perfect being would be negatively defined not by the attributes it has, but by those that it doesn’t have; in other words, a being perfect would have absolutely no flaws, defects, shortcomings, or limitations of any kind.
Now, let us look at the human level. Are we beings of this kind, that is, entities without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings? I think that if we are honest, we will see that we are clearly not beings of this type. We have many flaws, many defects, many shortcomings. We make mistakes, we have many physical imperfections and health issues, we fail at things, we know very little about many subjects, we often choose the wrong course of action even when we know better, we have poorly developed skills in most areas except for a small set of things we are decently good at, etc. In reference to the standard of perfection that is implicit in the meaning of the word, we are clearly not perfect. Is this state of affairs a problem, something to feel guilty or sad about? I don’t think so and I’ll explain why in a minute.
We can now consider the universe as a whole, which people sometimes say is “perfect as it is.” If we look at what we know about astronomy and about evolutionary biology, I believe it will soon become apparent that the universe cannot be considered to be utterly without flaws, limitations, shortcomings, or imperfections of any kind. Indeed, the universe itself has many flaws built into it, yet works very well despite these. Entities ranging from insects to stars evolve maladaptations, unstable structures, and imperfect forms as natural byproducts of the evolutionary process. Living things develop mutations, many of which actually hurt rather than help their survival, and these beings tend to die out.
Similarly, molecules on the small scale of things and stars and galaxies on the large scale of things often develop unstable structures that cannot last and break down quickly. The beauty of this process is that it reveals a natural tendency toward balance and equilibrium. The imperfections of the universe tend to be processed or in some sense worked out over time in a perpetual process. However, my point here is simply that the universe must also be seen as being imperfect according to the definition of the word given above.
The realization that neither we are perfect nor is the universe need not be depressing, however. I suggest that we don’t have to be perfect and we can’t possibly be. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves as human beings or the universe reach a standard of complete and ideal perfection. We can approximate perfection, that is, we can move closer to it, but we can never fully reach it.
Feeling pressure to do reach absolute perfection and suffering when we don’t is an exercise in futility; it’s like the work of Sisyphus, who must eternally roll a heavy boulder up a slope only to have it roll back down again. It simply doesn’t work. In fact, “perfect’ is a concept and not a reality. The imaginary concept of perfection is an abstraction from the reality of imperfection. Imperfection comes first and from it, we derive the idea of perfection. Indeed, imperfection is woven into the structure of humanity and of the world we inhabit. And that is not a problem. It is simply a reality to be accepted. It is part of what we are and of the composition of our universe.
This brings me to my next point. While neither we nor the universe can be considered ‘perfect,’ however, we nevertheless have the power to ‘perfectly’ accept the state of the universe and of ourselves without rejection or aversion. Doing this, as the teachers of Buddhism and the Stoic philosophers of Ancient Rome tell us, brings serenity and peace. The ancient Roman philosopher Epictetus, for example, suggested that we suffer less when we accept those things that are not in our power and making humanity or the universe absolutely perfect is certainly not in our power.
While such an approach runs the risk of making us stagnant in the face of personal, social, and environmental issues, I like to use it as part of a middle way position between the extremes over doing nothing and trying to do everything to “fix” the world. My approach is this: accept yourself and your world as they are, then do what you can. After you have taken action, accept both what you were able to do and what you were not. In this way, we are able to enjoy both the benefits of serenity and the fruits of engagement and action.
In Zen Buddhism, this approach is widely used. The Buddha spoke of what he called the Three Poisons, which he saw as causes of suffering. These ‘Poisons’ are thus named because they tend to spoil our happiness and peace of mind. These Poisons include delusion (like trying to convince yourself that your family will live with you forever when they cannot possibly), aversion (like rejecting some aspect of your life as if it weren’t there), and clinging (like making all of your happiness depend on some impermanent object or person). When we feel that both the world and we, ourselves, must live up to an impossible standard of perfection, this feeling itself rests on a delusion, because there is no way to ever realize this state. Imperfection is woven into the very structure of our being and of the universe’s own.
Moreover, when we stick to this view, we tend to feel aversion to the imperfections we encounter everywhere we look, and to cling to the perfection idea itself. The Buddha would predict that this state of affairs would make us suffer. And it turns out that he is absolutely right; this is what we experience day to day. It is apparent both in extreme cases like that of the anorexic and the bulimic and in the more subtle cases of people who quietly judge and reject their romantic partners because they are in some way ‘imperfect.’
Therefore, if we drop this idea that we or our world need to be absolutely perfect, the Buddha says, we will suffer less. Why? Because we will have a view grounded in reality, not in imagination. We are imperfect and so is our world and there is no way to change this fact, to shift either into a state of absolute flawlessness. When we don’t accept this reality, we suffer because the world continues to throw the truth in our faces. Moreover, when we drop this obsession with trying to make everything perfect, we also drop the clinging and aversion that made us suffer before. We can enjoy the world without needing it to be perfect. We can be at peace without needing to be totally without flaws. We can accept our flaws and certainly work to improve some of them, but we can also accept ourselves at each step of our development. We can be at peace with imperfection.
This, in closing, is really my most important point about this subject: imperfection is a reality, but we can be ‘perfectly’ at peace with it. This is what the Zen masters mean by ‘finding perfection in imperfection,’ that is, enjoying the unique character of things as they are. Sometimes, flaws can even become features. For example, an imperfect surgery left Thom Yorke, singer of the band Radiohead, with a drooping eyelid over his left eye. While some would see this physical condition as a flaw, I see it as a feature because it gives Thom his cool and distinctive look. We all have many flaws that are actually features. Have you ever been with someone who said they absolutely loved some aspect of your body that you absolutely hate? Have you ever loved such an aspect in someone else that they themselves rejected? If so, you have experienced the truth that flaws can be features. Imperfections can be loved, and loving them, like accepting them, brings peace.
If you have ever experienced a moment that you thought was so amazing that you wouldn’t change a single aspect of it and said to yourself “this moment is perfect,” then you have already tasted the beautiful nectar of acceptance. You have loved imperfections and in this way, made them perfectly acceptable to yourself in that moment. These fleeting moments of finding perfection in the present, which often arise and fade like flashes of lightning, reveal the value of accepting and loving imperfections and in this way, embracing them. When we do this, delusion, aversion, and clinging drop away and our suffering over these needless mental and emotional hang-ups drops away along with them.
In conclusion, when analyzed in the light of the definition of perfection, both human beings and the universe must be seen as being imperfect. However, this reality can be accepted and even loved and doing so brings freedom from needless suffering and greater peace. The sooner we meet the universe and ourselves in this way, while still taking action, the happier we will be. The more we do this, the more we start to see that we and our universe are imperfect and that’s perfectly okay.