How we use words is our own business, for such is language; and how they help us understand one another is a great wonder. For some, perfection is meeting our expectation 100%, that is to say, 0 flies in the ointment, 0 spanners in the works. For others, perfection is an abstract quality dwelling in Heaven, as proposed by Plato. His seductive philosophy still traps the unwary, well into its third millennium.
For simpler folk, which is most of us most of the time, perfection is the image of something desired. When we get it we’ll be “completely satisfied”, for which we may find a check-box on one of those questionnaires: “Please take a minute to tell us about your experience”. Am I right in saying that satisfying desires of the “end user” is the engine which turns the wheels of commerce? When I was at school learning geography, this wasn’t touched on. Industry was to supply necessities. Cutlery came from Sheffield, needles from Redditch, and so forth. Now it’s to bribe us into losing our best years so we can one day “live the dream”.
There was a time before all this, when we were hunter-gatherers. There was much leisure, and what came to hand each day was sufficient: failing which, we perished sooner than expected. In folk-memory, preserved in myth, this was Eden before the Fall. Is there any going back? Only through some form of sacrifice, as advised by priests, advertisers and employers who flourish while we do their bidding.
Thus are born winners and losers in this world which has a niche for everyone, while goading us to ambition, a form of perfectionism which cannot cease from struggle till the goal is reached. The perfectionist is sometimes reviled, as in this excerpt from the OED:
a person who is only satisfied with the highest standards; a person who demands or seeks to achieve perfection or excellence in some field. Now the usual sense.
1909 G. Sterling in A. Bierce In Midst of Life (1927) Introd. p. xiii Bierce was a ‘perfectionist’, a quality that in his case led to an intolerance involving merciless cruelty.
1930 W. P. Cresson Francis Dana xx. 308 Born a perfectionist, his earliest experiences were of the shortcomings of the Great.
1951 ‘J. Tey’ Daughter of Time ii. 28 A worrier: perhaps a perfectionist. A man…anxious over details.
1978 Vogue 1 Mar. 114/1 Bette Davis’s misfortune is to be a perfectionist in an industry run by opportunists.
1990 Sunday Mail (Brisbane) 1 July 15/2 A perfectionist who can spend 10 minutes arranging the cream crackers for a plate of cheese.
Perfectionism, I confess, is the bane of my own life.
There is, and has always been, another kind of perfection. It cannot be represented because, in a given moment, it resides in the eye of the beholder. It asks for no belief, only preparation and strenuous practice, as in the life of one dedicated to poverty, chastity and obedience. We think of the religious life as giving up riches, sex and freedom, but that is a remnant from historical tradition. The essential practice is loving what is; which in these days of poisoned news and politics, is something I thirst for. I’ve tasted its sweetness, I know where the honey comes from. I catch it often in moments, and sometimes manage to express it enough to share what it means, as perhaps in a piece from 2010 called “Pebble Way“.
* This post also from 2010 proposes that perfection is in the beholder’s eye.