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.
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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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Short Story: Across a Table

‘But why are you screaming?!!

Stop screaming, we are right here!’

A look of bewilderment appeared in his eyes. He let it stay there so that this terrible exasperation might crouch behind its shoulders and remain hidden.

‘I’m not screaming,’ he replied in confusion, holding his palms upwards towards the sky. But his companions flinched and covered their ears.

‘I’m merely trying to make myself heard.’

He glanced around him, and gestured towards the waves stretching out far below.

‘After all, there is a vast distance between us; an ocean in fact.’

His companions stared, their brows descending with frustration. He tried again;

‘Can’t you see it? It is a terrible distance – much too vast to leap over – so of course I have to raise my voice.’

But they were hardly listening. While he had spoken their faces had contorted into horrible, sickened expressions. Their fingers were clawing desperately at their ears. Hostility, as they shot him looks of resentment; what in the world was he trying to do?  

Dismayed that they had not understood him, he tried again to explain:

But I am doing this for you!’ he pleaded. And he did his very best to smile.

Directly below him, the waves roared menacingly and smashed against the cliffs’ side. The water climbed up the rocks towards him, reaching out its icy fingers. He felt them claw at him as the spray drenched his face and ran down his cheeks like tears, the salt burning tracks into his skin. The water was thick. It fogged up his vision and burnt his eyes.

Through it he could see that the faces of his companions remained dry. Dry, but disfigured still; marred by the expressions of bewilderment and hostility that he knew he had created there.

Desperate now, more alarmed than he had been before, he sought one last time to explain himself:

‘I am trying this time, I am playing your game. Still I know, I am struggling to succeed, but I am making an effort at least.’ And here he wiped his face hastily with his sleeve, to rid it of that embarrassing salt water. A kind of apology, for he sensed that his efforts were a violation of some sacred convention – something perhaps, that he had not understood.

‘See, I am making an effort at least. Surely you cannot hold my failure against me, knowing how hard I have been trying. The water is salty, clouds are approaching, and I can barely see you across this absurd ravine!’

He searched their faces for a response, but still they covered their ears, and even their faces with their hands. Only their strange, twisted expressions stared back.

Soon even these became difficult to make out, and their faces started to blur at the edges. Apparently a fog or some other kind of capricious ocean mist was building up between them, creating a wall. He squinted, but could not see through the mist.

Waving a hand frantically he made one last effort to catch their eyes. Their shrinking faces were becoming indistinguishable from the surroundings, and he did not want to remember only their angered expressions. He waved, and then jumped suddenly, foolishly, up into the air, trying desperately to reach them. He was losing them forever across this mad ravine.

They did not see him. They merely continued exchanging confused glances amongst themselves, searching for an explanation in their own faces instead of examining the waves that were raging so wildly below them against the cliffs’ edge. His shoulders fell and he stopped waving, but he stared across the ravine, trying not to lose their figures in the mist.

All the way across the ravine – across that violent spray that had now soaked so thoroughly into his cheeks that even a year in the sun would not dry it out, that had worked its way so painfully into his eyes that he scratched at them but could not free them – in the midst of that terrible violence one of them raised a cup of coffee to his mouth and slowly took a sip.

It seemed so out of place in this wilderness.