In the fall of 2004, I was waiting for a friend at the corner of Broadway and 121st in New York when the sidewalk beneath me began to move like a slow wave. I quickly found a place to sit and then watched, bewildered, as everyone around me continued on their way as if nothing were wrong. I remember looking up at the pitched roofline of Teachers College across the street, which suddenly seemed distorted and wavering. I squeezed my eyes closed then reopened them to my new reality. Unbeknownst to me, it was day one of a years-long journey of vertigo, fatigue, and other baffling symptoms. The ground beneath me had not actually moved, but my individual world had been abruptly shaken.
That day on the sidewalk I was a few weeks into the start of a luxurious and exciting fellowship year. I had moved from my high-desert home in New Mexico to upper Manhattan, equally thrilled about a John Dewey seminar and kayaking classes on the Hudson! When weeks had gone by and my symptoms had only worsened, one doctor suggested I should go home. I remember returning to my tiny lightbox of an apartment eighteen floors above a noisy street, shedding some tears, and then — with the help of family and friends — making one of the best decisions of my life: I was going to make the most of this opportunity no matter what. It would not be the “perfect” year I had envisioned, but it would be wonderful in its imperfection. And it was.
What if this year I could walk through my days appreciating all the imperfections that actually bring me joy, tell a story, teach something, invite my contribution, or add surprising beauty?
Like many things we learn through struggle, the earned wisdom ebbs and flows. And as I begin the New Year with joyful anticipation but also a deep ache for our very imperfect world, I’ve found myself needing to return to the lessons from two decades ago. What if this year I could walk through my days appreciating all the imperfections that actually bring me joy, tell a story, teach something, invite my contribution, or add surprising beauty — the way the bent, thorny tree outside our kitchen window creates a graceful arc over the sidewalk or the new lines on my face evoke memories of my kind father?
What if all of us could remember to ask ourselves: When was I searching for the “perfect” (fill in the blank here) and instead was surprised and delighted by something completely different? When were my imperfections met with compassion, and how was I shaped by that generosity?
Welcoming imperfection doesn’t easily align with what many of us have been taught, whether by family, school, religion, or larger cultural messages urging us toward constant improvement. Perfection is the prize and, to be sure, it has its place. It’s the appropriate goal when landing a plane, say, and it inspires and delights when achieved by the orchestra, the chef, the architect, the poet. The list goes on; perfection is worthy of aspiration and praise — a powerful culmination of talent and hard work.
Embracing imperfection is not about relinquishing excellence…Instead, it’s learning that living well — whether at work, in our relationships, with ourselves — includes imperfection.
Grateful living certainly makes space for the awe that such perfection can inspire, but it also challenges us to welcome the unrefined edges, flaws, and messiness of imperfection. And let’s be honest: that’s pretty much most of life. It’s understandable that one may initially shrink from the idea of welcoming imperfection, but embracing imperfection is not about relinquishing excellence. It’s not about saying, oh, it’s good enough. Instead, it’s learning that living well — whether at work, in our relationships, with ourselves — includes imperfection. Grateful living invites us to accept and even relish that much of life, even when joyful, is lived along a bumpy and unmapped road.
A good — but understandably hard — place to start is to soften to imperfection within ourselves and begin to cultivate some curiosity about the things that don’t go the way we plan. Is there an opportunity here? Is something being offered that I’ll miss if I keep clinging tightly to perfection? When we become more generous with ourselves, we’ll likely find it easier to stop expecting perfection from others. We grow in our ability to listen to and hold with compassion their struggles and heartaches, even their mistakes. We expand our capacity to be in relationship with them just as they are and actually come to know them in a deeper way.
Welcoming imperfection also opens the door to creativity and a kind of wildness of mind. Until that fellowship year I had always strived to be a perfect student, but when illness forced me to let go of perfection, I become a better one — more generative, more willing to take risks. My work took on new texture and depth. The same, I think, can be said about our lives. Jhumpa Lahiri writes, “Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity. It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.” I’m not sure I would have believed that before, but I now know it to be true.
Unlike perfection, imperfection isn’t a goal. It’s more of a truth. Living into that reality offers a kind of liberation.
When I look back on my year in New York, it takes effort to remember the days I really struggled — when I couldn’t read because my eyes wouldn’t focus or when fatigue arrived with such force that I wondered how I’d get myself back home. And in case you’re wondering how the kayaking class went, my compassionate instructor brought me hot tea on the dock at the end of my first — and last — lesson; kayaking and vertigo don’t mix. Here’s some of what I do remember vividly and will carry with me always: The enduring friendships, joyful visits from my family, the stunning Christo exhibit in Central Park’s record snow that year, the leaded-glass windows of the library at Union Theological Seminary, and the professors whose scholarship and generosity shaped my very way of seeing the world. My imperfect year lives in my mind as one of the great gifts of my life.
Unlike perfection, imperfection isn’t a goal. It’s more of a truth. Living into that reality offers a kind of liberation. We may find that our daily lives are greatly enriched and that by being a bit easier on ourselves, we actually grow and change in unexpected and welcome ways. It’s highly likely, too, that in making a seat for imperfection at the table of your life, you will find yourself laughing, creating, working, and resting with a new lightness and ease. You may find that “imperfection” is a pretty good synonym for truly living.
Photo by Motoki Tonn