We would have stagnated and likely died off as a species if we had settled for perfection. Evolution requires variation – a mutation from expectations, from what was extant or even conceivable before it happened. Our selectively cultivated foods – our pluots and actually tasty apples – came out of a desire for variety and difference: improvement, not perfection. When the focus shifted to profit, perfection took primacy over variety. (In the narrowest sense of the word profit, meaning a strictly financial benefit for the titular “owners” of the item in question, because the loss to the world has been enormous.) When we move from variation to perfection, we get shit. Look at the strawberry. Mass produced, global strawberries are engineered to be very red, very large, and very firm – the perfect image of a strawberry, and perfect for easy picking and long, bumpy transport. They are also flavorless. We are so averse to imperfect looking foods that we created a space for an alternative, radical industry based on selling “ugly” produce to people on subscription, because grocery stores won’t sell them. Because we won’t buy them. Perfect-ly good food, wasted because it doesn’t fit our model of what a particular food should look like.
Likewise, any ideal is just as timebound, subjective, and limited. Who created these standards? In the US, certainly, they are largely male, wealthy, White, able-bodied … you can keep adding privileged identities. What are those guys missing? The answers are infinite. Their idea of perfection has led us to waste food, people, ideas, art. Perfect children were quiet and still and obedient. Perfect citizens conformed with social expectations and followed laws, which have at many times been exceptionally cruel and immoral.
What even is imperfection? Is it just a name we give something that doesn’t fit the way we want it to be, the way our necessarily limited human expectations circumscribe the parameters or potential of a being or object? Is perfection simply acceptance? Is that what Neem Karoli Baba demonstrated when he instructed Larry Brilliant to eradicate smallpox while unironically insisting that everything was exactly as it should be? Is a world without pain and horrors a perfect world? Or is the world always perfect, regardless of Global Weirding, genocide, pick your cause; and is our empathy and grief and work to change those circumstances as inextricable a part of the perfection as the ghastly circumstances themselves? Is a perfect world one in which suffering is present for us to relieve? Is that super self-serving and monstrous? That, just as plants and animals must die to feed other plants and animals, and forests must burn to allow for new growth, our human world must be filled with resource extraction and cruelty? Maybe. Or maybe we just throw out the idea of a perfect world and instead live the paradox of simultaneous acceptance and opposition.
Buddhist, Native American, and other religions imply the idea of an individual entity being perfect independent of the community which literally and figuratively keeps them alive is absurd. Our selves don’t end at our “skin-encapsulated ego” (Alan Watts), and neither does the strawberry’s. That perfect strawberry is here reinterpreted as a massive failure because it poisons the soil, the farm workers who pick it, the air we breathe through the chemical inputs to grow it and fossil fuels to ship it; and denies nutrients and spreads disappointment to the people who eat it. In these interconnected worldviews there is no place for perfection, which attempts to delineate something that is by nature fluid. As the infinitely amazing Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy writes, we have deluded ourselves with the idea that power, or success, means domination. “This is not the way nature works. Living systems evolve in complexity, flexibility, and intelligence through interaction with each other.”[i] Evolution is never just personal; our environment decides which mutations are worth reproducing. Every creative act, every change is a collaboration between living things and their environments and cultures.
In the creative realm, the concept of perfection puts restrictions on what a thing can be, and creative potential can be smothered by such boundaries. If there is perfection to be reached, there is an idea of what is acceptable or appropriate, and therefore an unspoken idea of what is unacceptable, which is pretty much anything unfamiliar and innovative. If War and Peace is “the perfect novel,” where does that put The Vegetarian?[ii] Or Beloved? Or any number of works from other cultures that I have not been exposed to? What is a perfect face and who decides that? We’ve all seen the destructive potential of “the perfect body” and many carry that burden to the detriment of our health and happiness. The idea of perfection has led us to waste food, people, ideas, art. At one time, perfect art was representative, and representative only of the “noble”. Every genre of art rejected the previous genre’s idea of perfection. Nadia Comanechi achieved “perfect 10s” in her Olympic routines in the 70s. Now that same performance wouldn’t even get her into the Olympics. But that’s just time, you might say. Indeed, time is a characteristic of culture, and just as arbitrary and whimsical in classifying excellence. Think of all we would want (in the dual, Shakespearean sense of the word) if previous standards of perfection were enforced. Future creators will say the same thing about our standards, even though that is hard to imagine. A culture of perfection makes the new harder to imagine. We assume that we know what a thing can be, and knowing is the beginning of the end. A beginner’s mind is a space for exploration, creativity, and growth; an expert’s tends to resist change
With perfection out of the way, there are so many more ways to be. Perfection is static, proscriptive, and therefore inhibiting. If the nature of all being is boundless, as Buddhism and psychedelics tell us, then either nothing is perfect, or everything is. And if we are perfect and thereby liberated from the pointless goal of achieving perfection, what could we do with the energy we now spend on self-improvement and material comforts to salve our cravings? We could make gloriously imperfect art, perhaps, or grow imperfect tomatoes, or form imperfect, diverse, messy, mutualistic communities that cultivate the joy of future imperfections.
[i] World as Lover, World as Self– 30th anniversary edition, p.152
[ii] The Vegetarian, Nan Kang, translated by Deborah Smith. Perhaps my favorite novel of the last decade. (©2007, English translation ©2016)