Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Myth of Perfection

The biggest problem with the concept of Perfection is that it's a myth. What does this word even mean? Everybody's idea of perfect is different. What it means to you is, I guarantee, different than what it means to me. Which means we're all expending precious reserves of time and energy pursuing a chimaera.

I watched the movie Gattaca the other night. (Yes, I'm a little late to the party, but this is not surprising. A lacking sense of time is one of my flaws.) If you haven't seen it, or did see it when it came out and can use a refresher course, the hero of our story is born as a biologically natural child in a world where most parents sit down with a geneticist to select which traits they want for their offspring. Flaws such as poor vision, medical problems, or a tendency to violence are eliminated. Our hero is small for his size, has to wear glasses, and is genetically predisposed to heart disease. But he wants, more than anything, to travel in space. In order to make his dream come true, he must take on the identity of a biologically superior male. It's a great story, and part of what fascinated me was that the more people pursued the idea of perfection, the farther from it they seemed to get. Even the biologically superior characters experienced a sense of not being good enough, of not measuring up.

When I was younger I spent a lot of time worrying about my physical flaws. I've got several annoying body parts, the primary being a forehead that doesn't know when to quit. For most of my life I tried hairstyle after hairstyle trying to disguise the damned thing. This pursuit was complicated by a determined cowlick that defied all of my attempts at a nice set of bangs. When I met the Viking, he kept telling me to just let it be. Celebrate your hair the way it wants to grow, be who you are. He actually means this.

And really, if it comes down to it, yes there are things I'd like to change about my body but you know what? It's mine, forehead and all. It's familiar and comfortable. It's been with me for my entire life and has served me well. I really don't think I'd want to trade it in. Imagine looking in the mirror one morning and finding another face looking back at you. No thank you.

My real struggle is with all of those other flaws. With never quite being enough - not smart enough, creative enough, talented enough. Never the perfect parent or the perfect partner and certainly never the perfect housekeeper. As for the writing - oh, lord - the insecurity there could flood the planet. But again - what is this Perfection that I strive for?

During the first year after my husband's death, when I was juggling grief, and grieving kids, and learning to single parent, and a job, and my classes for the Master's degree I happened to be in the middle of, I failed to get an A in one of my classes. This devastated me. I wept. I was seeing a Psychologist at the time, for grief therapy. He was a gifted counselor, brutally honest at times with truths that I needed to hear. He listened to me bemoan my failure and then had the gall to suggest that I was being narcissistic. I was furious. How dare he say such a thing? Obviously I didn't think I was better than everybody else, I had FAILED.

But he was right. To somehow think that we should be perfect - which automatically implies being better than the others - is a narcissistic belief. What is so special about me that I should be a better student, a better parent, a better writer even, that the rest of the world? Nothing of course. The only person I have any business competing with is myself.

These days I try to aim for my own personal best, rather than comparing myself to others. Of course I fail at this, as well, but it's a failure I can live with.


  1. That's a really insightful observation about expecting perfection and narcissism. I know that I fall into that trap. Food for thought.

  2. Ego ego ego - it's the voracious dragon within all of us, demanding to be fed. He provides the fire in the belly, we need him strong, but be wary of letting him grow too big!

    Excellent post! Not that it's better than anyone else's, though. ;-)

  3. I had never considered that my perfectionism was a kind of narcissism, but it is SO true. Just shows how hard it is to be objective when you're looking at yourself! Great post.

  4. Perfection and narcissism: aha! Thanks for this post, Kerry.

  5. Laura - it was a concept that initially turned my brain inside out. And then it made sense.

    Jeffe - all about balance, I guess. A healthy ego is necessary, but when it gets out of whack in either direction bad things happen

    Ghost - It's pretty much impossible to look at yourself objectively, I think. Definitely a lifelong project, anyway.

    Johanna - I'm always fascinated by where the connections lie.

  6. Oooo. Narcissism. Guilty! Damn. I guess I'd better get over myself and go write something imperfect.

  7. The fact that you led this post with Monty Python epitomizes how truly perfect you are.