(This post is part of a weekly series for Know Thyself 2019, a 365 day journal project. Start here!)
We’re all aiming for it, right? Perfection, that is. It’s a sneaky concept that smuggles the unfathomable into everyday conversation and personal goal setting. But what is perfection, really? Is it a real thing?
What words come to mind when you hear the word “perfect,” or “perfection”?
- Sinless, pure, complete, pinnacle, faultless, flawless, excellence, exactly right
Is perfect a real thing?
“Perfect” is a commonly used word. The concept of perfection is alike the word infinity in colloquial usage. Like the word “infinite”, perfection gets thrown around left-and-right, and it’s easy to use, but we don’t have a deep understanding of what we’re referring to when we use it. Take, for example, a sassy comment like this:
“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not too sure about the former.”
Surely Albert Einstein, who is the author of this quote, had an educated idea about what was meant by “infinite”, but most of us understand the word contextually as meaning “without limits or bounds”. But although we can share in the joke, we don’t have a clue what we’re laughing about.
In the same way that we use the word “infinite” without a strong understanding of its significance, we also use the word “perfect” without an adequate understanding of it. Think about how you aim to make perfect decisions to create perfect outcomes. Consider the superlative words:
Good, better, best
Which one do you associate with “perfect”? Likely, you think the word that is closest in definition to “perfect” is “best”, right? The reason you hem and haw when weighing options is that you want to make the best decision, which is the perfect one.
But consider this: for perfect to be a real thing, there must be an imaginable universe that is exactly as things were meant to be. It’s a state beyond alright, mediocre, or even good. For perfect to be a realizable state of affairs, there would have to be a possible state of the universe in which everything had turned out just right, exactly as it should be. Perfection would be a state of completeness in the universe. Every other possible universe would be imperfect, incomplete in some way.
Does this seem possible? Not really – even if there was a perfect state, how would we know it from the imperfect one? Like infinity, perfection, if it exists, is beyond the scope of human knowledge. For all intents and purposes, perfection is not real. It’s a useless concept for us.
Now, let’s try substituting the word “best” into this revelation. When we substitute the words “best” and “better” into the place of perfection, we still get impossible-to-know situations. The best state of the universe. Huh? The better state of the universe. Huh? We are still trying to know the unknowable. For the moment, we can throw these concepts aside as useless, too.
What about substituting the word “good” for perfection? Can we know a “good” universe when we see it? I think you can. Have you ever looked on something and wholeheartedly believed, this is good? It seems that while perfection is not something we can know, good definitely is something we can know. We operate using our knowledge of good whenever we make decisions, choosing to act one way instead of another. Good, in contrast with perfection, is a useful concept.
Let’s rewrite it: for good to be a real thing, there must be an imaginable universe that is exactly as things were meant to be. For good to be a realizable state of affairs, there would have to be a possible state of the universe in which everything had turned out just right – exactly as it should be. Good would be a state of completeness in the universe. Every other possible universe would be not good.
A good universe – that’s imaginable, knowable. Imagine “good”, and try conjuring up that feeling towards the way things are right now: everything is just right, exactly as it should be, exactly as it was meant to be, complete. In a causal sense, everything has actually turned out exactly as causal forces determine that it should turn out. Everything has turned out exactly according to the way the laws of nature prescribe – characterized at each moment by completeness in result. Good is “perfect”.
I’ll leave you with some famous words (attributed to multiple authors) that suggest that good and perfect are the same:
“A work of art is never finished, only abandoned.”
- Have you ever been called a perfectionist – was it a criticism or praise?
- Can you imagine “perfection” in some concrete examples?
- In any example of perfection you created, is there a way that the thing/person is somehow incomplete? (Incomplete: adding something would make it better)
- In what areas of your life or work do you aim at perfection?
- Can you imagine a perfect universe overall? How would it be different than it is now?
- Do you think that perfect is still a useful concept, despite the fact that we don’t understand what we’re referring to?
- Can you rewrite one goal that uses concepts of perfection as a target in terms of “good” instead?
How to Get the most out of Know Thyself 2019:
Don’t rush through the questions. Do one question every day, leaving space to add thoughts later as you learn and evolve. The journal is designed to help you develop a consistent, daily practice of self-reflection.
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