The Perils Of Perfectionism

The history of humanity has been the history of the elusive quest for perfection.

This has been a great benefit to us in many ways.  Our tinkering with technology has vastly improved our lives by driving the development of machinery and devices that have taken us from standing agog at the sight of a fire to a blasé use of computing technology that is very close to magical.  Our desire to perfect business systems and industrial processes has led to greater productivity and cost savings.  Our wish to make a perfect meal, plan a perfect birthday party, or find the perfect gift provides a great deal of happiness to many and is a natural outgrowth of our love and friendship with one another.

However, the search for perfection has its dark side as well.  It can lead to obsession or cause unbearable and avoidable tensions in the home or workplace.  A dangerous rigidity of thought or purpose can result if the desire for perfection is not balanced by alternative viewpoints or common sense perspectives, and the search for perfection can cause some to fanatically embrace imperfect methods that cause great harm others in the process.  Perfection is a laudable goal, but we should recognize that humans are inherently imperfect and must sometimes be forgiven for words or deeds resulting from a lack of foresight, expertise, or experience rather than neglect, stupidity, or malice.

There is an old adage that perhaps also illustrates a problem that occurs with those who believe wholeheartedly in their own interpretation of what would constitute perfection: If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  The belief in our own infallibility causes us to sometimes hammer away at those who disagree when we should instead be listening carefully to why their ideas differ from our own.  

This maladaptive tendency to insist that we are right when we should instead be learning why we might be wrong causes an unsurprising amount of conflict, and this explains at least part of the reason why so many necessary discussions descend into a nonproductive exchange of insults.  If we and our beliefs are perfect, those who believe differently are imperfectwithout a doubt.  The end result is arguments between parties that can never end in a resolution because for each only their own perfectoutcome is acceptable.  This my way or the highwaymindset, which by definition excludes any possibility of compromise, creates a great deal of the nightmarish gridlock that infects our governmental processes today.

This mindset is also, unfortunately, leading to a revisiting of history that focuses on flaws in human character and behaviorwhich are always easy to find with the least little effort. Every one of the heroes of history had their heaping share of human foibles, and rapidly changing social, cultural, and legal norms leave individuals and accomplishments from our past exposed to revisionist interpretations that strip them of their former glory.  

Is it appropriate to judge a 18th century historical figure such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson by 21st century standards?  Are the pyramids not as wondrous because they were built by a conquering empire?  Was the fire that recently consumed Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris any less tragic because Christians have in the past forcibly converted or murdered those who did not share their faith?  Should we tear down all monuments to Martin Luther King Jr. because his less-than-welcoming views on homosexuality would now be considered hateful?

Human history is flawed because the humans who made it are flawed.  The desire of some to censure our celebrations of any historical figure or event that exhibits imperfectionsall of which we can easily spot with the benefit of 20/20 hindsightwill eventually leave us adrift in a world where we have no heroes or heroic acts.  Only miserable gradations of villains and villainy will remain as the heritage upon we must build our future.  

As bad as the past was on occasion, the actions, beliefs, and values of our ancestors bequeathed us the world in which we live today, and we should continue to recognize their mistakes and build upon their successes.  The many imperfections of the past can inform our judgments today, but we still need to recognizeand honorthe aspirations and achievements of those imperfect people.  The men and women who built our world were sometimes brutal, duplicitous, and unfairbut the best among them tried to rise above their own imperfections.  

It is both petty and shortsighted to castigate those who tried their best by focusing exclusively upon the worst that they did, and we need to remember that the most perfect of all human abilities is our capacity to forgive the flaws of others.  Tearing down the past is not the path we need to take as we too strive to rise above our human imperfections and create a better future for ourselves and the many generations to come.

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