On the dangers of seeking perfection

The other day I revisited Mount Dandenong with a friend of mine, and came home once again astonished by the natural beauty of that mountain.

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Specifically, we visited the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens, and as we sat under a tree enjoying our picnic I was struck by a strange but not unfamiliar, very disruptive kind of angst.

I want a garden like this

I thought to myself obnoxiously, with the moodiness of a sullen teenager. Why can’t I have a private garden like this? And I sat there in the beautiful sunlight, with a calming breeze whispering through the trees, brooding over the cruelty of being able to imagine my own master-garden – a garden so magnificent that I would never have to set foot into a supermarket again – and the knowledge that it would never be so.

Now however, as I sit at my computer writing I am actually laughing. I am reminded vividly of Veruca Salt and her annoying decree that her father by her a goose that lays ‘at least a hundred [eggs] a day!’ Golden ones, and no less. Veruca Salt, who shouts at everybody and disregards the wonders of the chocolate factory already around her in favour of imagining one even better. Who is not content with one tonne of ice-cream but demands, in a singing and dancing tantrum that would be hard for any parent to ignore, ten thousand tonnes of ice-cream.

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Veruca Salt: A Bad Egg

Recently (as you may have noticed from my frequent, sometimes obsessive mention of tomatoes) I have been attempting to cultivate my own small vegetable garden. Truthfully it is not that impressive, but even with the time that I have now I can only just manage this small patch. Even just thinking about the shovel outside and the cuttings that need to be potted reminds me that I really do not need a private forest, no matter how Edenic it might be.

But as we drove away from the mountain and back into the world of traffic lights and stop signs (there are hardly any on the mountain) and my mind slowly adjusted itself back to reality, I could not help but feel that despite the ridiculous fantasy I had concocted, I had hit upon something worthy of note.

The desire to have everything, to do everything 150% and not to settle for compromise is one that we are sold often, almost every day when we are told to reach for the stars, that anything is possible, that ‘the only thing holding you back is you’. These sentiments can be useful at times in discovering unseen potential, but it can also be very easy to forget how idealistic they are. Tied up as they are with concerns about status, or what is and isn’t seen by others as successful, they can acquire a potency that makes life more difficult, more bittersweet than it needs to be. Human instinct seems to jump towards wanting all of something rather than a small piece. I wanted that whole, unmanageable garden rather than my own cosy – and most importantly, manageable – version of it.

I suspect this is a common feeling, and happens silently in connection with various things and for various lengths of time. In contemporary society it is perhaps fair to say that two of the most common areas in which one can too-easily feel slighted by the absence of perfection are in one’s relationships and in one’s career. But you need only consider this instinct for a moment to see the danger in it.

Relationships can easily be suffocated when people are not given enough space. We love our friends dearly but we do not necessarily need to live with them to enjoy their company. Inviting your best friends over to live with you may turn out to be a mistake when you discover that one does not like cleaning up spills and that the other spends far too long singing loudly in the shower. Romantic relationships too can be destroyed by a possessive desire to keep a person as one’s own rather than to accept them as a separate entity, driven by their own individual preferences and ambitions. Such a desire to possess does not often come from a bad or wicked place, but its effects can be disastrous. In the words of Alain De Botton,

the quickest way to stop noticing something may be to buy it—just as the quickest way to stop appreciating someone may be to marry him or her.

Alain De Botton, Status Anxiety.

In our careers privately we look with distaste upon the idea of being a maverick rather than a professional. A lack of external recognition of what we are pursuing can seem something unattractive, something better combated by one of the many professional qualifications that are now on offer for every area imaginable. Not that long ago whilst browsing through part-time jobs I was disheartened to see that the minimum requirement for a cleaning job was a formal Certificate III in cleaning services, whatever that is.

I myself cannot claim to be impervious to this feeling, but the desire for perfection is an instinct I try to watch closely, for it can become disruptive when left unguarded. And sometimes of course, this will be easier than other times. For example, very recently – after watching all of Tales From the Green Valley, Tudor Monastery Farm, Secrets of the Castle and the other historical projects undertaken by the genuinely delightful Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn, Alex Langlands and Tom Pinfold – I realised with horror that my undergraduate degree in History and English had been a terrible, terrible mistake, and that I would have been better off studying archaeology, doing a PhD, making my way over to the UK, and sneaking my way onto the set in order to eventually be rewarded for my enthusiasm with a position on their team. This is completely laughable, and should probably be a little embarrassing, but for more than a few weeks this proposition occupied a sizeable share of my thoughts. Watching and reading obsessively had not been enough, and it was with a disappointed melancholy – again, the self-indulgent angst of a surly teenager – that I realised I would have to accept that I am not a professional historian, that such jobs are hard to get, that I do not live anywhere near those historical sites in England, that those documentaries were made years ago, and that my plan was actually, bonkers. But such is the potency of our dreams when we think of pursuing them to the very ends of possibility.

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Guédelon Castle in France, the site of a 25 year long experimental archaeological project to rediscover the past. Unfortunately, no one invited me.
ruth goodman why did you start this project without me
Ruth Goodman, why did you start this project without me?

Of course the idea of perfection is extremely potent. The thought of possessing, experiencing, or achieving something to the fullest of its extent is a response to our implicit knowledge that the conditions of life necessarily include imperfection and disappointment. This is why looking back to dreams of paradise or forward to visions of utopia have been so compelling throughout history. But while the drive towards perfection can be a useful one, the idea that perfection should or even can be a defining feature of every new undertaking is questionable, and often more disruptive than not.

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

– Practical words of wisdom from Arthur Ashe.

So in the interest of questioning the instinct to want all of something rather than what may be less glamorous but more attainable, I would like to remind anyone reading that your passions do not need the attention of the entire world in order to have value. Obsessing over what is not runs the risk of diverting our attention away from what is available and precious to us, and can even induce unnecessary anxiety.

In his fascinating video-essay Painting in the Dark Adam Westbrook addresses a closely related idea: the idea that in order for a creative activity to attain value it needs to be recognised externally by the rest of the world, or at least by somebody. This is a message contrary to much contemporary dialogue surrounding the creation of art and the value of the arts in general, and an issue that deserves much more discussion. In short, this is a video well worth watching for Westbrook reminds us that even despite the insistence of modern society – with its preference for certificates and trophies, business awards and tangible signs of success – one does not need the recognition of the world to be an expert or an enthusiast in one’s passion. It is tempting to think that if our passion is not at the forefront of our lives – that if one is a banker rather than a beekeeper, which is where one’s heart truly lies – that a failure has occurred on some grand scale. That if one is a florist but would rather race motorcycles, one has somehow let oneself down. Such suspicions are compelling, but they are not so. What one does to earn money is not always reflective of one’s true talent, and that dreaded question that strangers often ask each other upon their first meeting – so, what do you do? – needn’t carry with it so much frustration at the spotlight it throws on all the things one hasn’t done. Even florists can race motorbikes on the weekend, and even the most unassuming of bankers might be a first-class expert in beekeeping when he is not in uniform.

So suddenly, amongst the pruning and washing and all the other tasks that seem to taunt us with their lack of glamour, when one is interrupted with a moment of realisation of what life could be and one finds oneself wracked by the devastating realisation that you should have become a tour guide and travelled the world – or that really, you should have studied botany more closely at school and become a savvy tomato farmer – it is important to watch our instincts very closely. For from here there arises a choice to either collapse in despair that one will never really, let’s face it, be able to restore a medieval castle and turn it into a history museum (this is what all the cool kids dream of) or that one might not reach the level of professionalism in one’s career which can seem so appealing in the posture of the university professor.

In short, to cultivate contentment with an unfinished garden patch is a wiser idea than being seduced by dreams of a private-mountain forest. In the perfect world we can create in our heads reality can seem awfully full of shortcomings, even when it is not, when it needn’t be, and when we are already far luckier than we perhaps realise.

 

 

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On unluckiness: Friday the 13th

Nothing was entirely supposed to go right and so nothing has particularly gone wrong.

Alain De Botton

Today, Friday the thirteenth , is purported to be an unlucky day.

It is unclear what, historically, has made Friday the 13th a day of bad luck, but popular theories have connected it to Biblical events that were said to have occurred on a Friday, as well recurrences of the number thirteen: the crucifixion and the death of Adam and Eve reportedly occurred on a Friday, and the presence of Judas Iscariot as the thirteenth guest at the Last Supper are some examples often cited.

In contemporary society, the bad luck associated with Friday the thirteenth is responsible for the dread of an estimated 17–21 million people each year, a number large enough that an official classification of friggatriskaidekaphobia has been named to describe the condition. Symptoms of friggatriskaidekaphobia include avoidance of things like flying on an aeroplane, going to work or even pronouncing the words ‘Friday the thirteenth’. Anxiety, panic attacks and a nagging sense of doom also lurk among the symptoms.

Without wanting to suggest that this kind of fear is a good state to be in, I would, however, like to continue a strand of thought started by Alain De Botton in a video about pessimism. De Botton suggests that there’s nothing foolish or superstitious about possessing a fear of the present moment, but that there is a surprising and useful amount of practicality, and indeed wisdom, in possessing an impending sense of doom every now and then.

We’re currently living in troubled times, and many of us respond to these troubled times with a feeling of injured self-pity. As though something that was supposed to have gone right has gone wrong. I would like to reverse the equation: nothing was entirely supposed to go right, and so nothing has particularly gone wrong.

Alain De Botton

In other words, every day is an unlucky day, or at least an unlucky day for someone, and our fear and frustration arises when we expect otherwise, that life should essentially be trouble-free.

In the video above, De Botton cites expectation as the prime reason for anger: when we expect things to go well and they don’t, we become angry. It’s likely that expectations also play a part in creating many people’s dread of Friday the thirteenth. When the date is seen as an abnormality against the ‘norm’ – a state of living where things generally go right – anything unfortunate that happens will be remembered in relation to the fact that it occurred on Friday the thirteenth. This is a phenomenon that psychologists call ‘confirmation bias’; something that can create a mistaken faith in the idea that things are, essentially, generally supposed to go well.

As De Botton points out numerous times in his speeches, the ancient Romans were much better at processing the idea of bad luck or ill-fortune than modern societies. In Ancient Rome, Fortuna –  the goddess of Fortune – was acknowledged and thanked when things went well. Success was not necessarily seen as the normal state of affairs, and Lady Luck was often depicted wearing a blindfold, to convey the fickle and unpredictable nature of fortune: she might strike at anyone randomly, with no thought for what consequences.

Although this may seem a pessimistic starting point, De Botton argues that it frees us from the distinctively modern idea that we have personally failed in some way when things don’t go well. The ancient Romans remembered, much more easily than we do today, that very little in life is actually within our control.

Fortuna, or Lady Luck. Above all things, blind.
Fortuna, or Lady Luck. Above all things, blind

Fortuna’s ancient Greek counterpart, Tyche, was similarly represented. In the sculpture below, she wears a crown, while sitting comfortably with a handful of grain atop a struggling figure – perhaps an ancient farmer who wanted only to polish his tools before she came along. A mere glance at her composed countenance can remind anxious onlookers – or anyone whose hands are wrung tightly in confusion at the state of things – that Fortune reigns as queen over all health, life and prosperity, and that this is something that is far easier dealt with when accepted.

The Tyche of Antioch, Roman copy of a bronze by Eutychides.
The Tyche of Antioch, Roman copy of a bronze by Eutychides
Harvey Dent is perhaps the most obvious symbol of the modern man in relation to the idea of luck: he thinks he can make his own luck but is ultimately and unfortunately undone by greater forces. His effort is sincerely applauded, but his optimism can be damaging when overindulged in.
Harvey Dent, perhaps one of the clearest symbols of the modern man in relation to the idea of luck: he ‘makes his own luck’ for most of the film, but is ultimately undone by greater forces. His effort is sincerely applauded, but this bad turn of events reveals the frailty of even the greatest idealists in relation to that most fickle of guardians, Lady Luck.

In the modern world, however, stability in the form of breakfast, traffic lights, school timetables and regular mortgage repayments can often disguise the inconsistency with which the world is governed. The benefits of surrounding ourselves with both private and public reminders of the fragility of life – rather than unrealistic images of perfection that we see in the pages of glossy magazines – can easily be overlooked.

In public spaces, sculptures such as those by artist Lorenzo Quinn can remind us that we are all at the mercy of Fortune, and that every day we have lived so far has been lived according to these constraints. Acknowledging bad luck every now and then – as the ancient Greeks did with their love of tragedy – can keep our perspectives in check and help us adapt to the world as it is rather than as we would like it to be.

The Force of Nature by Lorenzo Quinn. Click on image for source.
The Force of Nature by Lorenzo Quinn. Click on image for source

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In order to resurrect some of the wisdom of the ancient Romans, I would like to suggest that sculptures of giant question marks should be scattered here and there. In busy city streets especially, or perhaps broadcast into the night sky in lights, so that when people step outside to wring their hands and look at the moon they needn’t feel too lonely in their confusion.

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Remembering that luck does sometimes get the better of us can be a useful reminder of how vast and mysterious, and beautiful and terrible the world actually is. It needn’t always be a cause for despair.

I entreat you (however trite the words may be) to think that life is not empty nor made for nothing, and that the parts of it fit into one another in some way; and that the world goes on, beautiful and strange and dreadful and worshipful.

William Morris

Along this line of thinking, Friday the thirteenth becomes less a terrifying anomaly in the calendar, but a survivable day, just like any other – albeit one where we can pause for a moment to acknowledge that everybody is at the mercy of Lady Luck. But if that doesn’t work, it might be worth remembering that today is the third Friday the thirteenth of 2015, and if you’re reading this, you already survived the other two.

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Is that you in the mirror Lady Luck?