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Perfection and its Discontents

Greeks promoted the notion of “perfection” – that there was such a thing as a perfect ratio, or a perfect body. And this word and concept has similarly entered our modern world: perfection has become the standard against whom everyone or everything is measured. Sadly, it is also part of our religious thinking as well: the concept that some people are “almost” perfect, for example.

The problem with the notion of perfection is that it is not only hard to achieve, but that it is, itself, a lie.

Take, for example, a simple physical object – a little cube. It might look like a perfect cube, but if you look closely enough, you will find that it is full of imperfections and impurities. The dimensions themselves can only be measured within certain tolerances, limited by instruments. There is nothing in this world that is “perfectly” any dimension at all, given that even a measurement is true only for a specific temperature and atmospheric pressure and composition of the ambient air… the list is endless.

People are attracted to the very idea of timeless perfection, which is one reason why diamonds are prized. Layer after layer of ordered carbon atoms, in existence since they were squeezed by enormous volcanic pressures seem like the antidote to a world of biological frailty and endless change. But while diamonds are closer to perfect, one of the ways in which they are proven to be natural is because they have certain kinds of impurities! Which means that they are not perfect at all.

The other thing about the idea of perfection is that it is inherently static. If a flawless diamond were to somehow be found to exist, it would be an unchanging and unchanged thing. A diamond is dead. So, too, a perfect Greek ratio, or what Greeks might call a perfect statue, all have this in common: they are much like a dead rock, and very unlike a living person.

Even our theoretical diamond can only be perfect in itself. Once it is exposed to people, or water vapor or even just air, then it will be affected and tainted by that exposure, even if only at the surface. Like a perfect military battle plan, all bets are off once contact is made.

We see this most clearly of all in the realm of human interaction. At every moment, the self-conscious person is making choices from a menu of potential actions. Each action will come with a host of potential outcomes, and the process and product are inherently messy and unpredictable. So decision-making is itself highly dynamic, with no options that can be said to be remotely perfect. Our decisions are always between things that we judge to have lesser or greater degrees of goods or evils, and those metrics are themselves necessarily highly subjective. Everyone assigns different values to goods – which is why even highly compatible married couples have much to discuss when living a life together. Even if everyone means to be a good person, we always have to accommodate our different tolerances for risk, for planning, for justifying one good work instead of another.

This makes a mockery of the notion that it is possible to live a perfect life.

Assume that the above is true. What then? Why is it wrong to have an ideal for perfection, to strive for something even when we know it is out of reach?

The answer is that if we believe in perfection, then we have confused the product with the process.

Life is a process. It is the way in which we make decisions and seek to improve ourselves and the world around us. That process inherently requires compromises and concessions, weighing certain goods above others, and above all, making decisions that choose one path that makes all the other paths impossible.

Think of it like marriage. There is no perfect marriage, just as there are no perfect couples. Nevertheless, any marriage requires commitment to one person, “forsaking all others.” The process is never simple but the result of a beautiful marriage can be absolutely incredible. It is, however, never perfect.

We live in a dangerous world. The world is clearly not perfect. Every suggestion that the world is, indeed, perfect, runs counter to all of human experience. We have death and illness and evil. Our world is populated by dangerous animals, and even the most friendly natural environments contain numerous risks to human health and life. The most dangerous of all, of course, are people themselves. People are extremely powerful, capable of creation – and destruction.

It is important to acknowledge that perfection should not even be a goal, because once we can eliminate perfection as a target, then we open the door to a whole new world of opportunities.

For example, people are often indecisive because they are trying to find the “right” answer to a question. This indecision can tie us in knots and even, in extreme (but far too common) cases, lead to a life that is hardly lived at all for fear of making the wrong decision. But if we acknowledge that decisions are inherently about life’s journey and not its destination (which will ultimately be physical death anyway) then it becomes much easier to keep taking steps forward.

We are not a state of being. We are what we do.

What does the Torah offer us about perfection? The word that most closely approximates “perfect” is “tam”, which is used to describe Noah (Gen. 6:9), and the injunction to Abraham to “walk before me and be tam.” (Gen. 17:1) It is the same word used to describe animals that are ready for sacrifice. So it can be translated as “wholehearted” or “without blemish.” But one thing is clear about the way tam is used in the Torah: it never refers to the end result. The story of Noah starts with the description of being tam, and Abraham was nowhere near the end of his story when he was enjoined to become tam. Animals that are fit to be sacrificed, of course, reach their fulfillment in the sacrifice itself – they are clearly not “perfect” beforehand because they have not reached their apotheosis.

The Beis Hamikdash (Temple) itself shows this. The building was improved from time to time (sometimes in very grand fashion), and the priestly services were themselves never static. Sacrifices were always a process, marking days and weeks and festivals, as well as individual offerings reflecting the lives of the Jewish people.

 

This speaks directly to our purpose. G-d created an imperfect world. Our task is to improve it. That is, and will remain, a process and not a product.

Note:

It behooves us to at least give honorable mention to a part of human endeavor that is, in itself, perfect in the Greek sense. Mathematics are attractive because they can be entirely consistent and complete, involving nothing messy like fudge factors and real-world conditions that often mask the difference between an accurate theory and one that, like Newtonian Mechanics, is useful but ultimately untrue.

It is, of course, mathematicians and its more numerate scientific descendants such as physicists who are considered the purest of truth seekers, the high priests of nature. On the other hand, it is engineers who dig deeply into all the muck of the real world in order to make things that actually work. Engineering is not just messy, but it also invariably prefers utilitarian knowledge (what works) to perfect theories that may be unmoored from reality. Yet modern progress owes far more to engineers and builders than it does to those who crave aesthetically perfect mathematical formulas. Engineers and builders, like people in a marriage or even a friendship, recognize that the processes themselves, whether they are perfect or not (or even whether or not they are true!), can lead to beautiful – albeit clearly imperfect – results.

 

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