Let us first acknowledge that any idea of perfection was made by humans: specifically, almost always men, and usually White, European man. I’ll start with one of the most influential men: Jesus. (Depending on what culture and century you live in, he may or may not be White.) The religion founded in his name has had an immeasurable influence on European-American culture, though I’d argue that his actual message (even the distorted, subjective transcriptions of his message) is far more universal, far less anthropocentric, and far less judgmental than what Christian, European culture has chosen to latch onto. Still, there is definitely some judgey stuff in the New Testament. This one was occasionally thrown at me when I was a kid, from Matthew 5:48. This translation from the King James Version of the Bible:
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
Since I took up with Buddhism, I find echoes of that same nonbinary and compassionate worldview hidden in secret pockets all over Jesus’ rags. So what did he mean by perfect in that quote? It’s difficult and perhaps pointless to parse language in the Bible – the flaws inherent in multiple translations (in this case from Aramaic through however many versions before the English), the inaccurate memory of the people recording his words, their own bias that led them to that memory, etc. But I still think it’s valuable to interrogate the choices in the translation. From my beloved Shorter Oxford Dictionary, at the time the Bible was translated into English (1611), perfect had many different meanings, including
- Completed; fully formed; adult
- Having all the essential elements, qualities, or characteristics
- Not deficient in any particular
- Being an ideal example of
- Of or marked by supreme moral excellence
- (Rare, but thanks to our buddy Shakespeare): in a state of complete satisfaction; contented
All sorts of stuff going on there, but only one aligns with what I, and many of you, have hanging over us: the goal of being exceptional, without flaws, and lacking in nothing. Perhaps older definitions shunned that, because only GOD could be perfect. In our contemporary, more secular language, we have these Google-ready definitions:
- being entirely without fault or defect : flawless a perfect diamond
- corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept a perfect gentleman
Who decides when to apply those adjectives, and how? If we take a moment, we can surely all recognize that an ideal standard or abstract concept is a construct, that there is no universal, objective ideal. But the idea of without fault or defect is just as fraught, inviting all kinds of ableism. Who decides what a defect or fault is? If it’s a variation from the norm, would that also include instances of what we might consider excellence? What if someone is exceptionally fast, intelligent, or beautiful? Is that a defect? If perfect is ideal, what is ideal? Standard? Doesn’t that seem like a low bar? I’m starting to think there are at least two clear problems with the idea of perfection: the burden of the unattainable goal, and the limitations of the standard of ideal. Both too much and not enough.
The World English Bible translates Matthew 4:28 passage as:
Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
I know I’m a word nerd, but this reads very differently to me. First of all, the structure seems to imply a precursor, something that led to the therefore, whereas “Be ye therefore perfect” stands more easily on its own. The prelude is the Sermon on the Mount, which is filled with mostly groovy stuff, the grooviest of which comes right before this statement. Matthew 5:38-5:47 is all about loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, giving to those who ask and those who don’t. I particularly like his critique of “love your neighbor,” which basically says: any asshole can love their neighbor; that’s amoral. Loving your enemies takes work, and is generative. Stop picking sides: God shines on everyone and rains on everyone. This is how you get to perfect – loving everyone and treating everyone without prejudice. Shall (all you lawyers out there know this) means will. It’s a commitment from Jesus, not a command. It’s already there. If you care for others as you would for yourself, you are already perfect.
Let me circle back to the “complete” definition of perfect. It could be the most fucked up or most forgiving option of all of them. In my monkey mind I have used complete as a standard for a painfully long time. Particularly when it comes to writing. I had to keep editing, keep refining, keep proofing until a work was complete, and despite never getting there, I never abandoned the quest. I was so thankful for deadlines in school or work, because I would eventually have to stop writing, imperfect as the piece always was. But as hard as it is to complete an essay, or painting, or symphony, it is exponentially insane to think of achieving completeness as a person. If at some point one becomes complete – when they have the spouse, home, and child/ren perhaps; or when they break the world record while winning gold in the Olympics, how do we characterize everything after that? Who are you post-perfection? We see people struggle with this all the time. What do you do when you’re “past your prime”? How do you find meaning if meaning is tied up in perfection/completeness and you’ve reached your destination with nowhere else to go? How much more liberating would it be if we held onto no ideals at all? Is that absurd?
In the Buddhism I hang with everything you need, including enlightenment, is available to you at all times because Buddha nature already exists within everyone, and perhaps everything. So we are already Complete, already perfect, with just a wee bit of really fucking calcified artificial frosting hiding all that nutritious goodness.
Ram Dass keeps returning to Completeness in How Can I Help. That is, recognizing that every person on the planet is already complete. When we seek to help people, we may be serving them food or companionship or understanding or shelter, but not because they are lacking in some way; rather because we have or have access to a thing that they need, so it’s only natural to transfer the resource to the area that requires it, like putting lotion on your own dry skin. In a sense, both giver and receiver are just fulfilling our parts as members of the ecosystem, and in that way we are perfect. If we approach others as lacking, imperfect, incomplete, we are not really serving them, we are serving ourselves and our own judgment and rules and fears and ideologies. That kind of help may give someone the calories they need to go on another day, but it can leave them with a feeling of inferiority, of insufficiency, and it doesn’t actually serve us as individuals or us as members of a human and ecological community, because it is reinforcing separateness and contributing to inequitable thinking and behavior. Recognizing everyone’s completeness, everyone’s perfection (as I can so easily do with Vicious) is a path to an equitable and multifarious world.
To be continued. Again. I could go on and on… and I do.
Next time: Creative Imperfection