This time this column might better be entitled “The Imperfect Life.”
I suppose anyone actively engaging in the Examined Life already knows it to be true, but this unsettling reality often rears its head around this time of year. All the glowing recollections that fill Christmas letters and cards almost always focus on the very best from the past year while leaving out those pesky occasions that remind us, over and over, of our imperfect lives. Still, many of us get trapped into thinking that our lives, our families, our homes and jobs are dull reflections of the joy so many of our correspondents seem to have shared in the past year.
Those of us who have served as family counselors in one form or another certainly understand this annual phenomenon. It often has our clients or parishoners expressing their desire to be like Ms. G or Mr. M, who represent the perfect lives to their enviers. Often, we counselors know only too well the problems in Ms. G’s or Mr. M’s own lives, which often have them wishing to have lives like Mrs. B, with the two children at Harvard, or the handsome man with the BMW. On and on the cycle repeats itself, while filling a minister’s study or keeping many a therapist in business during the “Happy Holidays.”
Thanks to the onslaught of perfect images – be they depicted on Christmas cards or every 12 minutes on TV – we subtly buy into the belief that we must emulate the falsehoods that permeate this semisacred time. A marriage goes bad or a job is lost, a child disappoints or a business goes bust, and we convince ourselves that perfection still just barely alludes us. “If only …” we whisper and dream of others’ lives who have it so good, so full of happiness and contentment, so perfect.
Surely part of what drives our economy forward is the deception that perfection is just around the corner in the house for sale or the car that we drive. A marriage quickly sours when the people involved fail to recognize the perfect person they married is as imperfect as they themselves.
How do we manage such a reality?
We start by acknowledging it. We confess the obvious aloud and to each other. There is no perfect life! We have to figure out how to live amid the imperfections that fill our days. Such recognition is the mark of maturity, both psychological and spiritual. What’s more, it enables us to find happiness, contentment and pleasure outside of the mirage of perfection. Recognizing that we are not capable of attaining the perfect body, the perfect job or the perfect lover is to move closer and closer to true happiness and peace of mind.
Those weavers of beautiful Persian rugs, I am told, intentionally include a flaw in their intricate designs as witness to their belief that there is no earthly perfection. It is found only in the realm of Allah. Such a reminder is of great service to those of us who call gods by other names.
I recently read a lovely reflection on imperfection written by a woman, a mother, who had found herself as all of us at various times do, recognizing the imperfections that shape her life. She was walking through the woods pondering her dilemma, particularly her struggles to raise two teenaged daughters, when she came upon a deer, a three-legged deer to be exact. It was mindfully munching the grass while next to it were two very young fawns. The woman stood transfixed watching this beautiful but imperfect beast with her babies. And as she watched, she recognized the deer as a guide for her spiritual journey.
“(My teacher Thich Nhat Hahn) tells us that ‘People who are awake see the manifestation of the Dharma in everything. A pebble, a bamboo tree, the cry of a baby, anything can be the voice of the Dharma calling.’ But for me, it is the most unlikely of mothers: a three-legged doe. She has taught me to love myself unconditionally, and to accept my weaknesses as strengths. After all, if she can do it, so can I.” (Heather Panahi, thichnhathanhfoundation.org, May 17, 2017)
Earlier today, my morning bike ride was concluding and my pedaling became less intense, my aerobic needs well attended. I was cruising home through the neighborhood, taking my time, enjoying the experience of another good workout. I noticed a young boy, no more than 2 or 3, being lifted out of an SUV. His mom placed him down in the grass and he looked around, stretched out his little arms and opened wide his eyes, his mouth agape. He was staring in wonder at all that is. He turned in a little dance with those arms still spread and took it all in. He was transfixed by joy. Looking out from the perspective of a 3 year old, I began to see what he saw; it was the wonder and beauty found in our imperfect world. It was perfect.