While attempting to look into April’s backpack, we have to struggle a little to open it. The zipper has become a bit fussy and the duct tape that was used to patch up the holes here and there complicates the opening process, but eventually we are able to see what is inside. And what we find is imperfection. A pile of “not-quite-how-we-pictured-it” awaits us.
If philosophy is supposed to be a type of therapy, April’s imperfection will certainly remind us of its charge. April is full of beauty, certainly, but its beauty often pops up in unconventional spaces and perhaps even in unconventional ways.
Frequently, its beauty is imperfect beauty, not the airbrushed, magazine-quality beauty, but the nitty-gritty gorgeous beauty that can’t be manufactured, duplicated or choreographed. A single tulip, wildly popping up in a manicured yard, seemingly growing out of nowhere; a Little League game played in a sudden downpour; an unexpectedly warm afternoon; and a surprisingly, yet delightfully long-lit evening, with an ad-hoc dinner.
Perfection may be attainable in a utopia, or in our success-driven minds — perhaps even in theory. In reality, however, perfection is exhausting. Sometimes it is even — dare we say? — quite disappointing.
As Susan Wolf, professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, argues, “moral perfection, in the sense of moral saintliness, does not constitute a model of personal well-being toward which it would be particularly rational or good or desirable for a human being to strive.” This is a comforting thought for those of us who, try as we might, often miss the mark of moral perfection.
Wolf goes on to state in her piece, “Moral Saints,” “This is not to say that moral value should not be an important, even the most important, kind of value we attend to in evaluating and improving ourselves and our world. It is to say that our values cannot be fully comprehended on the model of a hierarchical system with morality at the top.”
To apply this theory to the larger philosophical idea of perfection, moral perfection can be used as a powerful means of conformity, not as a guide to ethically sound behavior. In this perspective, perfection is a tool for manipulation and a conduit for undue and unrealistic pressure to submit to societal ideals. It is not an empowering drive for excellence, or an encouragement to become our own unique, best selves, but rather, it is a false adoption of someone else’s idea of the ideal.
Not only is this philosophy dangerous to the individual, or the microcosm, but it is dangerous to the macrocosm, too. This attainment for perfection creates a distorted sense of isolation and reduces our ability to appeal to our sense of humanity. Perfection, if defined as homogenous and unified, or, conversely, as an ideal individual or prototype, is not a catalyst to help us break racial, gender or class boundaries; it is not what helps us to ask for forgiveness or experience redemption. It is that very desire for dangerous, erroneous perfection that maintains inequity, preventing us from adapting, changing and improving our human condition. Preoccupation with perfection detracts from experience. Instead, it focuses upon arbitrary process, both encouraging exclusion and promising feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction.
Imperfection, then, has liberating components of inclusivity, possibility, daring and joy. Imperfection may manifest itself in perfectly wonderful ways if we are for a moment willing to suspend our expectations of “how we pictured it,” whatever “it” may be.
So take the backpack with the busted zipper and the duct-taped holes and enjoy the spontaneous, improvised imperfection it has to offer. It may turn out to be what was perfectly needed.
Jennifer Lemma is a philosophy instructor at Walla Walla Community College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.