The Elusive Quest for Perfection
Typos are the bane of my existence. Maybe I’m just a singularly neurotic writer, but I doubt that I’m alone in this. Trying to rid a manuscript of typos is like guerrilla warfare in the jungle. The brutality never ends—never. Just when you start to feel safe, the misplaced comma, the missing quotation mark, the glaring absence of a preposition, or worst of all, the misspelled word ambush you. Typos are sinister; they taunt and mock and jeer for the sport of it—it’s what they do. It’s their raison d’etre. That’s why writers have someone else proof their work, but even then, some particularly devious typos sneak by the editor into publication, like stowaways on a ship waiting with evil relish to emerge, brazenly, just after the boat sails.
Would I have it any other way? Would it be better to half-heartedly glance over my work and pronounce it “good enough”? Of course not. I think it’s good to struggle with something you love—to do some serious suffering, even while knowing that perfection is elusive. Striving for perfection has its moments—think of great pianists or Olympic athletes—and it can even save lives. I fervently hope that people who dismantle bombs are perfectionists—obsessively so—as well as doctors who perform delicate surgery. And heaven help us if our dentists declare a botched root canal, “good enough.”
We need to strive for excellence, of course we do—but we need to be wary of perfectionism, for as we climb that steep mountain on our way to our ideal, we might just lose our footing and go crashing down in a heap. Perfectionism has a dark and dangerous side.
Perfectionism: The Dark Side
Perfectionism, a fairly innocuous word, can in fact make us miserable and neurotic and play heinous tricks on our psyche. It can make us sick. Perfectionism is a dangerous game and, if not watched carefully, can turn tragic. For example, women are inundated from an early age with magazine ads showing gaunt, curve-less bodies as if they are the “ideal.” Anything outside the perimeters of that ultra-thin, half-emaciated ideal is to be stamped INFERIOR, and thus most of us go around feeling quite dissatisfied with—or even ashamed of—our bodies. Thanks to the Tyranny of Thin, eating disorders continue to take their toll on—even kill—bright, talented young women.
Remember Karen Carpenter. Listen to her voice and weep for all that was lost. She died of complications from anorexia nervosa at age 32, a complex illness, but one in which a driving force is perfectionism-gone-mad. And for the anorexic, perfectionism does not stop with body image, but infiltrates the whole personality. One's entire life-orientation becomes hostage to elusive ideals of perfection.
On the socio-political level, radical idealists strive, sometimes violently, for their version of the perfect political system or perfect religion. Worse still—maybe worst of all—are those who believe in an ideal skin color or “race.” History breaks our hearts with its testimony of such madness.
Granted, these are extreme examples, but even in our everyday lives we are besieged by this vague, unspoken notion that there are “ideals” out there that we have to live up to, or else we are simply inferior beings that might as well be wiped off the page like dangling modifiers. We feel we need the perfect house, the perfect spouse, the perfect job, the perfect nose—even perfect happiness.
Tracking Down the Source . . .
Chasing after elusive ideals: Where does it come from? Who can we blame for the tormenting power of perfectionism to blight our peace of mind? Our parents? Our culture? Our “super-egos”? Maybe. But in this essay, I’m going to blame Plato. Yes, Plato. He was the philosopher who came up with the whole idea of perfection in the first place. Of course, Plato pretty much laid the foundations for Western Civilization, so it’s best not to be too hard on him. Can you imagine a world without, say, The Republic? Socrates himself? Never. Plato taught us through Socrates how to think critically, how to examine our lives. Plato had his moments. Yet, there is a downside to the great philosopher. Yes, it’s true—and I say this with relish: Plato was NOT PERFECT.
"The book is equal parts memoir and character study, as we’re treated to the author’s personal history with the music. Having an affinity for the music because it’s important to your cultural heritage is one thing. But it’s something else entirely to have the music swirl around you constantly because your entire family performs the songs as part of its live act for a large swath of your childhood.