Every day for more than a year, I read a sticky note I mounted to my computer monitor with a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: “The beginning is always today.” It is my ode to imperfection, an acknowledgment that nothing will ever be complete and I can always start again. 

There are many ways to exhibit perfectionist behaviors and attitudes, many of which can make other people frustrated or miserable as they endure or patiently wait for you to end your impossible pursuit of the unrealistic. The mature perspective, however, can cut through the tempting desire for people, places, things, and life to be perfect. And, the grateful perspective can see the treasure trove within imperfection. 

Oftentimes, it is at the end of life when you appreciate all the imperfections you’ve encountered and how they enriched rather than detracted from your existence. I heard this realization countless times from dying patients when I was a hospice chaplain. Those final perspectives have long shaped mine. 

When it comes to money and possessions, the cliche holds. It is true, you cannot take these things with you when you die. But that’s likely the least of your problems. Even for those who have accumulated many things and many riches, it’s likely that they possess way more ideas about how life should be — unrealistic expectations they’ve put on themselves and others. These are the sort of ideas that fuel regrets, obsessive self-improvement, judgment of others, faulty expectations, and dogmatic thinking to name a few.  One day you’re going to have to let this — the things and the ideas — go. You can’t take them with you. So, why not let them go now?

The Practice

A pen and paper will be helpful for this practice.

Scroll down for an audio transcript.

Reflection Questions

At the end of the day, reflect on the following:

  • Can you see any aspect of your life differently in the absence of expectation? 
  • What seemed flawed and broken, but you can now recognize as holy and irreplaceable in the absence of expectation?
  • What previously appeared trivial or less than, but can be a fountain of delight when you approach it with a non-judgmental gaze?
  • What felt like a burden, but can now be something to savor? 
  • As you end your reflection today, ponder this: can love and perfection co-exist or does one inhibit the other?

Audio Transcript

Welcome to this practice on imperfection. A pen and paper may be helpful for this exercise.

Tomorrow is not guaranteed. So assume today is your last day. Now, this may feel horrifyingly morbid at first, but your final day does exist somewhere. So settle into this reality, and take a moment to be with this day. 

Acknowledge the stuff you’ll leave behind, the people who will inevitably rummage through your things, the affairs you’ve left out of order, the incomplete work, the unanswered messages, the goodbyes never spoken, the lists left undone. It is likely that so much is still unfinished today. Yes, this is a lot to envision. So, go ahead and be with whatever is coming up for you. If you’re flooded with thoughts or emotions, don’t rush. Pause. What are you leaving behind that feels incomplete, undone, or seems to linger and makes you anxious? Take a moment to write down any observations that are emerging for you, especially if this is a corner of your mind you don’t visit often. 

As you ground yourself further in this moment, this final day, begin gathering your thoughts. Gather your expectations for who you should be and what you should or should not have done. Gather your disappointment in others and all the things you wanted to turn out differently. Gather those impermeable expectations your parent or some other adult put on you as a child and you diligently lugged around with you every day since they were first spoken to you. 

Gather your desire for how you think the people in your life should behave. Gather all those expectations you put on yourself to shape what others think of you, how they perceive you, what they expect from you, and what they demand from you. Gather all those ideas and things placed upon you that you did not invite in. 

Gather all of these things and place them in a container, a container that is so large it can hold expectations you don’t even know you have. Allow all that you gathered to live here for a moment, and to co-mingle and to fight amongst themselves. This is your last day and you have gathered any pursuit of perfection that tempts you, you have gathered in order to name each of these unobtainable distractions to your happiness. They have emerged from within you. Take the time to truly see them. Acknowledge their presence and that they mean to serve you even when they distract you from living your life. Nonetheless, one day they will be released — let go of. Make that day today, even if this only provides a temporary respite. You might say to them, I see you and I release you. 

This is the sort of release that spiritual teachers call a spiritual death. It is the acknowledgment of the impermanent passing by, depleting itself from you. As you envision this spiritual death, pay attention to your body. 

Where do you feel the weight and pressure of perfection — all the control required to maintain the pursuit of perfection — where do you feel this fading from your body? 

In letting go of always doing things correctly, trying to steer your life or others to a particular destination, what feelings and thoughts arise in you? 

Do you have any sense of liberation emerging? 

Do you find yourself curious about how life could unfold differently for you…or perhaps how your relationship with others and your environment might evolve unexpectedly? Does any of this feel surprising to you? 

Stay attuned with your body, your thoughts, and your feelings today. In the absence of perfection, what can find its way home to you? As you attune to this day, what is perfectly imperfect?

Look for those moments when you feel more alive today. And may it be a grateful day.

Photo by Sachin Prabhashan

Joe Primo, Grateful Living

Joe Primo, Grateful Living

About the author

Joe Primo is the Chief Executive Officer of Grateful Living. He is a passionate trainer, community-builder, and program developer whose accomplishments in the field of grief made him a leading voice on resilience and adversity. Grateful living became a pillar to his work since his first introduction to Br. David Steindl-Rast in 2005. An entrepreneurial leader, Primo designed, built, expanded, and led Good Grief, Inc., the largest children and family bereavement organization in the Northeast, from 2007-2022. His TED talk, “Grief is Good,” reframed the grief paradigm as a responsive resource. He is the author of “What Do We Tell the Children? Talking to Kids About Death and Dying” and numerous articles.