Imperfectly Perfect

I remember reading an article some years ago about Denmark being the happiest country on earth, and the theory proposed by the article was realistic expectations. The Danes, by and large, kept their expectations modest and were content when reality matched those expectations.

I won’t vouch for the accuracy of the article, but I will vouch for the accuracy of the idea that false expectations are happiness-killers.

I’ve dealt with high levels of anxiety for years. As in, all my life (especially the last ten years of it). I’ve long recognized the role my perfectionism plays in my anxiety, but I don’t think I’m alone in it–either the anxiety or the perfectionism. To a greater or lesser degree, we all long for the perfect. The imperfect jars. It draws our focus. It obsesses us. We unavoidably zero in on the blemishes and can’t look away.

I remember an illustration a teacher I once had used with his class. He walked around the room holding an almost blank white piece of paper with a small ink blotch on it and asked us what we saw. Naturally, all the students noticed only the dark mark and tried to decipher what it was. The teacher wrapped up his illustration by telling us that we what saw was a blank, white piece of paper. With a small blot. His point was the human tendency to miss all the obvious positive to see nothing but the negative and how we should try to overcome that tendency.

I’ve often remembered that illustration and disagreed not with the results but with his takeaway. I think it illustrated a different takeaway. We can’t help noticing the negative because the negative is unavoidably noticeable. We make dark marks on paper because they’re meant to be seen. It’s called writing. Or drawing. Noticing the dark marks are the point.

If you take a pitcherful of clear, pure water and throw in a teaspoonful of mud, it won’t matter that the mud was only a teaspoonful and the teaspoonfuls of pure water outnumbered the mud a hundred to one. The muddy water infiltrates the whole pitcher. No one will want to drink that water.

To draw the illustration broader, pain serves the same function as the dark marks on the paper or the mud in the water. It’s attention-getting. That’s its point. Pain’s function is to grab our notice and refuse to let go. Almost to the exclusion of noticing anything else. It lets us know when something has gone wrong and needs dealing with. There’s an urgency to it because we’re not meant to ignore it. And like the teaspoonful of mud in the pitcherful of water, it infiltrates everywhere. One drop taints all the goodness. Nearly everything in my body can be in working order and pain-free, but when I’ve just stubbed my toe, I have no capacity to take in all that’s still going right in my body. There’s no sense pointing out the beautiful scenery to the passenger with motion sickness. When past a certain level of pain (in any form), all we can do is absorb the pain. We have no room for more.

But not all pain is physical. To draw the illustration broader still, all suffering is designed to catch our attention and let us know that something has gone wrong and needs dealing with. We writhe away from imperfection because we were meant for perfection. We won’t ever be fully satisfied with less.

Still, in the meantime on our fallen, imperfect planet, we have to get by as best we can. We have to drink the tainted water because that’s all that’s on offer at this stage of the game. There are manageable levels of pain that one can tolerate for a time and still feel life to be good. Life is pain management, and a good life is pain well-managed. It’s all about finding balance, I think. Like the Danes, we can learn to match expectation to reality and live with some imperfection in the here and now and still be able to keep focus on the positive and be grateful for the good.

Over the course of the past decade, I tried a couple rounds of counselling for my anxiety and depression. Although I still believe this form of treatment can be helpful for some, it didn’t end up being what I needed. You can’t think your way out of everything, I learned. A starving man or a cancer patient will not be best helped by cognitive behavioural therapy. I wasn’t starving and I didn’t have cancer, but I did have real-world problems that needed real-world solutions. It wasn’t “all in my head.” Now that I’m moving into some of those solutions, I’ve noticed that I still have a lot of residue leftover from the anxious times. My brain will need to get out of the habit of constantly shooting out the stress hormones. Part of that healing process will be learning to live with imperfection.

Imperfection needs sorting out, I’m finding. At the moment, I’ve taken on a new and challenging living situation. It will entirely be adjustment to imperfection for the first little while. I’m seeing that I need to categorize the imperfections of it into three different slots: Tolerable, intolerable but something I can change, and intolerable but nothing I can change. Happily, I haven’t found anything in my new living situation intolerable with no fix in mind. (That was the situation of my past decade generally what with one thing or another, so I’m extremely grateful if I’m now moving out of that season.) The longest fix for the intolerable-but-fixable at present will be mental. It’s the lifelong battle with my perfectionism that this living situation will be good for. I find I’m constantly saying to myself, “This particular imperfection is imperfectly perfect. It’s small enough to be tolerable, and it’s helping you embrace imperfection. This imperfection is perfect for you! It’s exactly what you need!”

On a larger scale, that’s life. We’ll all find that there are levels of pain or suffering or just imperfection that aren’t so huge they destroy all happiness, there are other levels that will unavoidably mar happiness that we can (and should) fix, and there will be times where the pain or suffering or imperfection is intolerable, and there’s nothing we can do but ride it out till time eases it off. It might be helpful to differentiate between the imperfections in life in this way. I think these are the reasonable expectations that make Denmark a happy place and the Danes a happy people. If we know we can’t be happy all the time and don’t expect to be, we’ll be much happier overall just to be happy when we can be. Then, we can approach all the imperfectly perfect in our lives with gratitude.