Everything is perfect and there is always room for improvement. — Shunryu Suzuki
For those suffering from self-induced pressures of striving to be perfect, here is a reprieve. It doesn’t involve daily affirmations that we are already good enough and should embrace our shortcomings as part of what makes us special. Nor does it reject the idea that perfection is unattainable and reserved only for the divine. These binary options are based on our presupposition that there is something wrong or broken about ourselves and we should either fix it or surrender to it. When we re-frame our definition of what it means to be perfect, we can liberate creative forces that are unconstrained by fear of failure, rejection or loss. This freedom gives us permission to create abundant art and in the process, become more comfortable with our own inherent perfection.
Being perfect takes less work than one might think. Whether we like it or not, we are perfect expressions of our past choices and natural determinants that have created our current state. We are perfect criminals, comedians and priests. Perfect here doesn’t mean ideal or optimal, but congruent. An outcome is a perfect reflection of “state-ness” based on all the actions that created it. In this sense, all systems work perfectly. What we consider error is the evolution of any creative process and is the system’s way of understanding itself.
In devotional art, an aesthetic such as Japanese wabi-sabi incorporates deliberate omission into the design itself as a statement that nothing lasts nor can ever be finished. Islamic art also uses pattern breaking in geometric forms that represent the divine order of the universe, as a way to acknowledge deference to the perfection of Allah. Architect Eliel Saarinen designed Christ Church Lutheran with the large crucifix behind the altar far off-center, an intentionally dissonant design choice to forever remind the congregation of their imperfection before God.
And isn’t most art based on dissonance; the creative act that provokes us to relate to it or ourselves in a different way? By assembling new combinations of shapes, colors, sounds and words, we are constantly challenged to reconcile our ever-changing conditions with the systems by which we interpret them. In this way, great art is also subversive in how it undercuts established notions of form and even artistic merit itself (ie Pee-Wee Herman). To say that art is our aspiration to be closer to the divine act of creation itself reflects the false duality between creation and creator, when they are one in the same.
While “defects” in devotional art call for us to reflect on our own shortcomings, they create a kind of separation anxiety. If we measure ourselves by a divine standard, all the while acknowledging that it is impossible to achieve, we suffer for every creative act that inevitably falls short. Yet look at the the universe; it’s a hot mess. Everything is in the process of imploding, exploding or wobbling around. Bunching in primordial fabric led to the clustering of gasses that gave birth to galaxies and eventually boy bands. Had things been perfectly balanced and evenly distributed, I wouldn’t be writing this right now. And the universe answers, “So what?”
Perfection is always in progress and doesn’t require an end state. The universe is never complete, yet in the words of Max Ehrmann, “Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” This is reassuring. It reminds us that no matter who we are or what we do, the beat goes on and the sooner we embrace that, the sooner we can get over our attachment to specific ideal outcomes and enjoy the creative process without fear of regret.
While there is no more perfect person each of us could be in this moment, we are always free to create a different version of ourselves. This doesn’t mean improvement, which is based on the past, but making new choices based on our vision of the future. If one is perfectly obese and wants to be a thinner version of one’s self, that is not a more perfect person, only less obese than before. By acting in congruence with an alternatively imagined future, we may not necessarily get better, but different. We play this game within an interpretive framework of established cultural values. While it might not be easy to change these values, we are always free to change our minds.
We are experience engines and interpretation machines that are built to make sense of things through continuous judgment of ourselves and others. This makes it difficult for us to accept things as they are, versus how we related to them in the past or how we would like them to be. While we reserve perfection for something divine, we embody this same creative, destructive and chaotic entity. God may be a boundary condition of the massive unfolding equation that is the universe, but we, like everything within it work perfectly.
Genius is the error in the system. — Paul Klee