Perfect Imperfect

The past week has been a Rainbow week for me. You might not be old enough to remember the original kid’s programme with Geoffrey, Bungle and co but I’m guessing that you’re at least somewhat familiar after all the retro nostalgia trips of recent years. In each episode of the show there was a running theme which permeated the overall plot as well as the strangely angular pictures that were drawn on screen, the bedtime story, and the Rod, Jane and Freddy song. For example, it might be that Zippy needs to learn that it’s not nice to steal George’s favourite pencil. Everything in the show would be geared towards imparting this message to both him and the audience of similarly ego-centric children. Imagine a U-rated Sex and the City and you won’t be far off.

My theory is that life will sometimes send you a Rainbow week: those times when the universe seems to be particularly unsubtle in its attempt to tell you something. Myself, I explain this more in terms of the tendency of human beings to find patterns in the randomness of life, rather than any serious conspiracy on the part of any kind or cruel god or gods who might give a damn about what just one of the billions of people on this planet is up to. Whatever the case I try to welcome the lessons to be learnt. This week’s message was that it is okay to be imperfect. If you’ve already learnt this one feel free to skip the rest, but I’m guessing that most of us haven’t really learnt it. I think it’s probably one of those you have to work on.

And now for the tenuous link to bisexuality: this week the news has been saturated by stories of Lib Dem politicians and their sexual shenanigans. It seems that our society has difficulty acknowledging the existence of bisexuality (yes there is actually a way in which a person can have had sex with men as well as women and not be lying when he says he isn’t gay). It also seems that we are particularly unsure about letting one of those dodgy fence-sitters into a position of power, however meagre. But, my point here is more about our trouble with imperfection. Our society (as it is reflected in the media at least) simply cannot allow that someone might ever have gone for sexual pleasure without carefully thinking through the consequences, or that they might have hurt people in the process of trying to live their lives, or that they might ever have lied to protect themselves rather than telling to complete truth about the things they have said and done. The ultimate crime in the eyes of the judgemental journalists? It seems to me that it boils down to having ever made a mistake. I’ll readily acknowledge my lack of understanding of the complexities of the political world, but I can’t help thinking that, from Charles Kennedy onwards, we have been saying that we will only be happy when someone who is entirely perfect is leading the Liberal Democrats. Well good luck in finding one of those.

And do we go any easier on ourselves than we do on our 21st century Zippy and Georges: our leadership candidates and our Big Brother contestants? I suspect that most of us regard ourselves under an equally, if not more, critical lens, repeatedly scanning our lives for signs of the imperfections that we find so unacceptable.

For years I have had a recurring dream that I am retaking my physics A-level exam. I sit and sweat realising that I haven’t touched my notes or textbooks in all these years and I’m going to fail in most spectacular style. With one week to go I start trying to cram all the necessary information into my head in a hopelessly doomed process of speed-revision. The other day, I actually realised, within the dream, that there was no need to retake the exam. I was now a grown-up, with a life and job; improving on my physics A-level grade would make no difference to my life. I decided to go into school and tell the teachers that I wouldn’t be attending the exam.

I woke up after that dream in a state of relief. I lay there in bed and began, as is my habit each morning at the moment, to go over the events of the last year or so. My contentment started to ebb as I began to list the possible failures: the people who had expressed discomfort at my actions, the papers that went unwritten, the classes that hadn’t gone well due to my lack of concentration or preparation, the pain in the eyes of the person I loved and then hurt. After I finally dragged myself out of bed and away from these recriminations I had a shock of realisation. What was I doing there in bed other than revising and revising for the retake of an exam that I would never be able to do over? It seemed like some part of me felt that if I went over and over it enough somehow I would be equipped to ‘get it right’ should I ever get the chance to go around again and face the same kinds of situations. If I could just tease apart the bits I did well from the mistakes then I could ensure that I would only do the good stuff next time: no flaws, just perfection.

The relief at the end of my dream was realisation of the futility of this. Finally I was content with how I’d done the first time around and could accept both my triumphs and failures and everything in between. My new guru, Emmy Van Deurzen, says ‘What a relief to renounce the striving for perfection, once we realize how insufferable we would be if we could achieve true superiority, sainthood or a state of total self-knowledge.’ (p.104). Or as my dear friend T, equally eloquently puts it, ‘I’m glad you’re not one of those perfect people coz if you were I’d have to put you up against the wall and shoot you’. Luckily, she’s never actually met a perfect person and been forced to carry out this threat, but perhaps she should be watching the Lib Dem leader contest carefully…

‘What a relief to admit that one is basically and totally lacking: what a discovery to recognise that this is the very thing that one is, and that far from being a handicap this is the very thing that makes human life possible at all.

It is insecurity that spurs us on to explore the world. It is anxiety that allows us to not become complacent. It is coming to terms with this reality in oneself that makes it possible also to recognize it as it manifests in others. Perfection, no matter how desirable, is nothing but death: death is perfection. For it is only when we die that life is completed. While we live, life is imperfect and incomplete: it is this that motivates us to work and improve the world. Yet we discover that we always fail and that our efforts are inevitably insufficient and we remain insecure to the last.

Therefore, to come to terms with imperfection and incompleteness…must be one of the main tasks in life’
Emmy Van Deurzen, Paradox and Passion, 1998, p.13.