Through the lens of perfectly imperfect, mistakes, flaws, and the shortcomings of others and the world suddenly become good, even desirable.
Most of us will acknowledge that perfection is unachievable. But acknowledgment doesn’t equal action. As likely as we are to declare in one moment that nothing is perfect, we might find ourselves straining toward perfection in the next. If we’re honest, how often do we find ourselves regarding our bodies, our work, our relationships, and the state of the world as not good enough?
For me, the answer is, more than I’d care to admit. And it’s for this reason that I’ve loosely entertained the idea of tattooing on my arm the words, “You do not have to be good.” I need the constant reminder of Mary Oliver’s ever-popular poem “Wild Geese.”
You do not have to be good
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
I devoured these words the first time I heard them. So I don’t have to live my life in a constant state of guilt for my failures? I had grown up Catholic, and my conclusions of church teachings — however unsophisticated they may have been (I was young, after all) — had me tirelessly chasing Christ-like standards for most of my childhood. God was watching. So were Mom and Dad. Sin is bad. Do no wrong. Goodness equaled purity equaled perfection.
…because purity was still wrapped up with my idea of good, excellence felt like a moral imperative.
The world was watching too. At school, I felt the eyes of teachers, the principal, and coaches. Their expectations of excellence were compounded by society’s veneration of accomplished careerists, celebrities, and supermodels. Goodness equaled achievement equaled perfection. And because purity was still wrapped up with my idea of good, excellence felt like a moral imperative.
I found myself in constant pursuit of perfect behavior, perfect grades, a perfect body, perfect performances on the field or on stage, and perfect relationships. Inevitably failing to achieve these, I failed God and the world and found myself navigating deep-seated, often paralyzing guilt and shame. Media messaging and marketing–ever crucial in a consumerist society that requires we feel like not enough–reinforced my sense of failure. In the face of my apparent mediocrity and insufficiency, I struggled to feel at home in the world. I projected my expectations of and disappointment in myself outward, and I struggled with anyone or anything that didn’t measure up to my idea of good.
Maybe this account sounds a tad melodramatic (as it can to me). Poor you, such a burden this perfectionism. But our ideals and expectations can insidiously rule our lives. However unaware or unseasoned my relationship with perfection, its depressing impact felt real; the consequences certainly were. I quit anything I wasn’t immediately good at. I gave up whenever I sensed failure was on the horizon. I avoided anything that might cause the red-faced shame of embarrassment. I closed myself off to the world and the vulnerability of relationships. I ignored the callings of my heart.
Of course, in spite of their detriment, our ideals can serve. My tendency toward perfection meant that I held myself accountable. Society, too, has benefited from our pursuit of excellence: increasing standards of living stem at least in part from our propensity towards perfection. The positive external reinforcement that comes with being “good” can make it difficult to let go of the pursuit.
But just as acceptance doesn’t ask that we relegate ourselves to stagnation, embracing imperfection doesn’t ask that we settle for less than. It simply encourages us to ask why?
But just as acceptance doesn’t ask that we relegate ourselves to stagnation, embracing imperfection doesn’t ask that we settle for less than. It simply encourages us to ask why? Why strive toward the unachievable end that is perfection? If we find our answer has more to do with avoiding judgment–as was the case for me–we might question the ideal’s usefulness. If instead, we find our hearts stirred to pursue our most wholehearted vision of life, then we might find benefit in gently using the ideal as mindful motivation. When we see perfection for what it is–an imaginary ideal, not a destination–we loosen its tyranny over our lives.
In chaining ourselves and others to unachievable standards, we stifle life. Unrelenting perfectionism often incites judgment. The shame that such judgment can induce hinders our ability to work toward the very ideals we value. We render ourselves afraid to act, lest we do something bad or wrong and suffer the attacks of vilifiers. This toxic feedback loop poisons not only our personal lives with invalidating self-regard but also society. Nurturing transformation in ourselves and the world asks that we open our hearts to our own and others’ failures, compassionately harvesting whatever wisdom they might offer.
We affirm our belonging in a universe where nothing is static.
Through the lens of perfectly imperfect, mistakes, flaws, and the shortcomings of others and the world suddenly become good, even desirable. We welcome the opportunity to learn and grow both on our own and in community. We cultivate connection in holding space for the perfect imperfection of everyone, recognizing we all have a place in mindfully working together toward common ideals; the strengths and supposed flaws of each individual serve the whole. We affirm our belonging in a universe where nothing is static.
What does perfect even mean in a world of constant iteration, with perpetual disruption, creation, and movement at the most fundamental levels of physics? It either ceases to mean anything, or it merges with reality: The word perfect comes to reflect and embody that which is ever in flux. Process itself becomes good. We can both aim for a destination and rest in the enoughness of where we are now. We can trust in the fact that we are living, dynamic reflections of an unfinished and complete universe.
Reading “Wild Geese” reminds me that simply being human and opening to wholeheartedness matters as much as any ideal. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” What possibilities await with this affirmation? Perhaps we honor the callings of our heart, even if they feel risky. While we might not eradicate feelings of shame or disappointment, we can mitigate them as we recognize, these, too, belong in perfect imperfection. Perhaps we readily step into something that used to make us feel vulnerable, trusting in how it might serve us not only beyond the moment but in the moment as well, opening us to opportunity for growth. Mistakes become desirable. Flaws become beautiful. We cultivate compassion and kindness for ourselves and others. Love in all of its expressions becomes an ideal as we remember we’re ultimately seeking wholeness and communion with our essential selves. Whatever good might exist in the world seems to exist in this trustworthy great fullness, open to and grateful for the unfolding.
Editor’s Note: This essay was inspired by conversation with members of the Grateful LivingTeam and written in service of the theme for our Grateful Gatherings.