People throw away what they could have by insisting on perfection, which they cannot have, and looking for it where they will never find it. ~Edith Schaeffer
How many times have you articulated a thought by beginning with the words "In a perfect world" or "that's perfect"?
All the time is my answer. But I'm banning it from my lexicon starting today.
Why? Let's start with the obvious. Life isn't perfect and no matter how hard we try, we won't make it that way. To speak and think and act that way is a childish and naive way of looking at humanity, let alone life.
Yet somehow in the last few decades, a perfect life has become the definition of the American Dream. Our speech is littered with perfect as an attainable lifestyle. How did that happen?
Our society has begun to focus on on the very worst possible thing we can: Finding perfect. The perfect grades, the perfect college, the perfect job, the perfect success, the perfect body, the perfect friends, the perfect marriage, the perfect life philosophy, the perfect government, the perfect reading list, the perfect home furnishings, the perfect vacation, the perfect mani and pedi, the perfect...the perfect....the perfect....
Celebrities spend millions in vanity dollars creating the illusion of perfect. "Reality" shows tout perfect. Politicians promise perfect. The seas will recede and they are the change we've been looking for.
The media, our entertainment, our education system, our politicians know exactly how to help us achieve perfection every day. We have bullying experts and self esteem experts and "I'm offended by that" experts to help us get along better. We have victim studies and global warming grants to help us fix previous wrongs. We have farm subsidies and educational subsidies and poor subsidies and retirement subsidies. We have more and more help in our quest to find perfect. But we never seem to get there and so we peddle perfect faster and complain about not being there and call it progress.
But despite all this effort we still get hurt, and bullied and feel bad about ourselves and get offended and victimized and fall behind. The poor are still with us, life is still a struggle, and somewhere along the way we discover that the perfectly red tomato we've clamored for isn't so perfect after all. All the while, we blame it on someone else.
That tomato is a great metaphor for a country where much of the population idolizes Europe from afar. No matter what the evidence says, the tomato is redder, so it must be better. Anyone who pays attention, however, understands that perfect is one of the most damaging world views. It underlies almost every destructive philosophy. It was the goal of the Nazis. It is the goal of the Marxists. And it is the goal of socialism. Each of those philosophies rob a society (in different ways) of the satisfaction of facing down adversity and I am worried that increasingly it is the goal of citizens of the United States.
When I was teaching, I often heard parents say "I just don't want my children to go through the horrible things that I went through when I was their age." Why? Do you think they are too weak to handle it? Did it make you weaker or stronger in the end? Or a pollster asks parents if they think their children will be better off than they are and define it as an economic question. Is having more money truly better off?
I have a lot of liberal friends. Young liberal friends. And one common thread I have found rampant in generations x and y is the pursuit of perfection. There are an alarming number who believe that in my generation. I can't speak for those ahead of me. But constantly, I hear my friends talking about pursuing things that do not exist. Namely, perfect. And I am afraid. I am afraid we are making ourselves weak.
We have twisted the American dream into something perverted. Owning a house, having plenty of disposable income, having a perfect life. Perfect is that mirage that you never achieve. It makes you anxious. It means your first failure (the best of all learning tools) screws you up permanently. It breeds discontent and robs you of your ambition. It blinds you to your own success and robs you of the satisfaction of improvement. But most of all, it makes you weak.
The American dream is not perfect. The American dream is freedom. And somewhere, in our quest to become perfectly safe and perfectly lived, we have sacrificed the real dream of being free to pursue whatever it is that lets you enjoy life. To enjoy the things that you may not be perfect at, but love. As Henry Ford famously said "When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it."
Next time someone asks me if my children will be better off than I am, I will ask: Better off in what way?
If that means letting go of perfect for a shot at being free, I will say yes. If it means having the perfect life without headwinds, I will say a most certain no.