Be Like Putin

Putin as a boy

Oh, that’s right. We already are.

Like many of you, I presume, I’ve been feeling pretty down about the world – specifically humanity – of late. Not just the invasion of Ukraine, but the ongoing US-backed Saudi slaughter of civilians and starvation of children in Yemen, the abandonment and starvation of Afghans, the anti-truth and anti-LGBTQ legislation passing in state after United state, the infestation of voting restrictions and other steps toward the de-Democratization of our country, the Congressional blocking of nominees because they recognize climate change, and so on.

When I hit a breaking point with these kind of current affairs, I hit an empathy barrier – not for the victims, but for the perpetrators. So? You might ask. Why waste empathy on them? They don’t deserve it and they’re certainly not worth your emotional energy. That is a perfectly reasonable reaction, but Buddhism and other forms of Love offer other perfectly reasonable reactions as well.

If you can love something, you can love anything

I stole this from John Lewis, who said something to this effect in an interview I have yet to place. Simply put, hate creates hate and love generates love. The more you open your heart, the more open your heart is. Loving “bad” people doesn’t make you bad, it exercises your capacity to love. Love and loyalty are not the same, nor are love and admiration. But loving, or let’s step back from that loaded word – generating empathy – for flawed humans is a good thing. Because we are all flawed humans. And we all deserve empathy.

There are no Monsters

Okay, maybe there are; but far, far fewer than we like to assume. Some of the easiest people for me to hate right now were once damaged children – Putin grew up in poverty and Trump in privilege, but they both were (heard tell) deprived of much affection or unconditional love and their desperate striving for approval, power, and money seem an attempt to compensate for that. That’s not the focus of my argument, but I do think it’s important to remember, as President Bartlett passionately averred, “They weren’t born wanting to do this.”

So, muster up some sympathy for the shitty childhood if you like, but there is a path to a deeper understanding. I’ve been engaging in a practice of tracing what I presume to be Putin’s motivations and seeing if I can find those in myself. And – surprise! I easily can.

  • greed – whether it’s hiding the last piece of chocolate or giving the guy at the stoplight a dollar instead of $5 (or nothing at all)
  • nostalgia – Putin’s is for the Soviet Union; mine is for the best year or two of college, my reign at the theatre bookstore, or the best years in Minneapolis, where I could always find a friend at my local bar
  • heroism – if you think I don’t care about being the “good guy” you don’t know me well
  • revenge – rarely practiced it, kinda horrified by it, but have definitely thought about it
  • power – not obvious for me since I’m not career ambitious, but I absolutely want to be the one people defer to when I care enough to have a strong opinion
  • lying – yup; not as a habit, but sure
  • covering up bad things I’ve done – when I can, and when my conscience hasn’t stopped me. I once scraped up a car when I was driving buzzed in college. Never told anyone.
  • silencing people who talk shit about me – I’m sure I’ve talked shit about people who didn’t like me in an attempt to render them untrustworthy
  • taking my bad mood out on others – all the fucking time

It’s the actions Putin takes, the things Trump says that horrify us, but they all come from some combination of the above motivations and others. Just as everything we do is motivated by something

Recognizing the self in the other isn’t just an intellectual exercise for me. It’s both the foundation and the goal of my spiritual life. Which is not just about being kind or forgiving or certainly “good,” it’s about recognizing our Oneness, that we are all different expressions and perceptions of the same consciousness, or, if you haven’t studied Buddhism or taken large amounts of psychedelics, it may be easier to see it as different parts of the same body. I love this metaphor, originally (?) from Santideva – if your foot is impaled by a sharp object, your hand pulls it out. Your hand doesn’t ponder whether the foot pain has anything immediate impact on the hand; your foot doesn’t have to ask for help or explain its plight; your hand doesn’t expect recognition or payback; and your mind doesn’t have to oversee and assess the situation. Nothing could be more natural than moving to relieve your own pain. That is where I want to get, with everyone. With everything.

One of the reasons I love this metaphor is that you can extend it to almost any situation. Sometimes you can’t alleviate the pain and you just have to live with it. Sometimes you choose not to do the work to alleviate it and it pulls at your conscience like a bad deed. And sometimes that foot is so far gone, you have to cut it off. You don’t hate the foot, you can’t even really blame the foot. The foot is a product of the body and the world it interacts with. But just because you feel bad about the foot doesn’t mean you’re going to let it infect the rest of the body. We can practice compassion for the Putins and Trumps while still passionately working to stop them. But when we call them monsters, pretend we don’t understand them at all, exclude them from the pettiness, cruelties, and failures that are our shared human bullies, we fail to recognize these things in ourselves and fail to appropriately address them when they rise up and likewise try to motivate us.

Understanding our own pain and suffering, and how that plays out in our thoughts, connects us to the suffering of the world, and may prevent us from acting on it.

The problem with dissatisfaction and suffering isn’t that they’re painful but that we misunderstand their nature and purpose. What makes suffering painful is that we identify it as “mine.” In fact […], it’s the common human suffering […] loss and pain connect me to others, and to life. Experiencing suffering like this, suffering ends. It transforms into love.

from The World Could Be Otherwise, Norman Fischer

Okay, maybe (you say). But still, I’m not going to be like Putin. I’m never going to steal billions of dollars or kill an enemy or bomb a country. But those things are different from what most of us occasionally do by an order of magnitude only. Drawing a line on empathy is no less arbitrary than drawing a line between countries. If my empathy stops where someone’s political beliefs, or racial awareness, or capacity for kindness differ from mine, I’m just as narrowminded and closed-hearted as those whose empathy stops with my political beliefs, or race, or capacity for kindness towards them.

Yes, it’s kind of like saying you can’t fight love with hate, and maybe you don’t like that expression. How about, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Better yet, let’s examine the full context:

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices

Audrey Lorde, from The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

Sure, Ms. Lorde was talking about the kind of terror and loathing that we “good people” know is “bad.” But it seems to me that her attention is not focused on the kind of hatred we practice, it’s centered on the practice, the terror and loathing itself. The separation, the hierarchies, the isolation and denigration: those are the master’s tools. Those are what we touch, what we reach down into. We can always and easily find a reason to hate someone, someones. If not the abused, then the abuser. But those roles are continually changing. The choice to empathize or reject are what remain.

The most loving people in the world have often worked the hardest against hatred and violence, and come out the other side without being destroyed by the work, or causing harm to others in the process. For me, that is worthy striving for.

Art Hack

Art Hack

I cannot draw.

This is so true it’s not even critique. Playing Pictionary exclusively with non-artists, my work is irrefutably the most distorted, the least comprehensible. A horse may reasonably be interpreted as a capybara, a sailboat as a place setting. It’s one of those failings I’m no longer ashamed of, though of course I’ve always wished I could create a somewhat representative work, even if visual art is likely beyond my reach. Some people have trouble expressing themselves in words. I have not only been lacking in the ability to convey thoughts, ideas, or images in a visual fashion, I haven’t been able to successfully convey anything in graphite, paint, clay, crayon, ever.

Then, last summer, I started getting into trees. Not, like, physically into them (or just barely). But really falling in love with trees. I have to give credit to Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a book I would not have read if the author hadn’t had a remarkably forgettable name (a work I read of his years ago was one of my most loathed novels of the decade). For whatever flaws it has, The Overstory brought trees alive for me in a way that nothing in my child-of-hippies, nature loving, environmentalist past has done. I was suddenly thirsty with the need to know trees.

How does one meet trees? In the beforetimes, one would naturally show up at one’s local arbor social, chat up some tall, deciduous babe, maybe leaf together. But what of these pandemic times? Where does one socialize with a firmly planted, silent species?

Rather than returning to a method of learning that has, I now realize, always bored me, overwhelmed me, and failed me – that of book study and rote memorization (a methodology I think I may have repeated for decades because I saw it as a way to punish myself for my not knowing, ignorance being a sure sign of my laziness, ineptitude, and lack of intelligence, rather than an accident of circumstance), I sought another way in. I had been using iNaturalist at the recommendation of Jenny Offill’s ironically inspiring book, How to do Nothing in an attempt to identify local birds, so I posted some snapshots of trees in my area and begged the wisdom of the app’s community for identification, but soon found that there’s a lot more you typically need to identify a tree than a bird. A clear avian photo or song is likely to produce a positive identification from an avid amateur, but when I tried arborday.org’s tree identification gauntlet after iNaturalist failed to produce results, I found that with ~60,000 species on Earth, you need a lot of info to id a tree – info I didn’t even comprehend, let alone have the ability to produce (pettiole? pinnately compound? lobed margins? did they teach us anything important in school?). I had to gather data, and short of standing in front of a tree with my blech-inducing laptop to document objective information for long stretches of time, the best way to do that was to start sketching.

Not the whole tree. Too overwhelming for my detail-oriented brain, plus I am wary of attempting representation, for the reasons explicated at the top of this post. I was focused on essential pieces of the tree: the design and texture of the trunk, the exact shape of a leaf, the pattern of leaf placement on a branch, any acorns or fruits or other adornments.

Begin at home, they say. So I literally did. Not with the Black Walnut in my backyard – a tree I love so much I regularly ruminate on the heartbreak of its eventual demise (likely long after my own), much as I do with my dog (likely much sooner), but not with my partner (weird). I focused instead on the unknown boulevard tree, across the sidewalk from my front yard. I grabbed a camp chair and hauled my small stash of gear outside. I started with the trunk, carefully recreating every swirl, protrusion, and knot as clearly as possible with my new charcoal pencils in my new spiral-bound sketchbook. It didn’t take long to realize that not only was I not going to capture the 2×2′ chunk I had planned to draw, I would be lucky to finish 1/4 that much. It struck me that this was because I was essentially copying the details 1:1, that my brain hasn’t developed the skill to shrink the patterns down. I was literally just drawing what I saw, exactly as I saw it, to the best of my ability.

TREE!

Who cares? The year before, I didn’t think I could draw anything and now I had put something beautiful on paper. The intricacies of the trunk were engrossing. I could honestly have continued getting to know them for hours, if I had enough paper. Instead, I restricted myself to a small chunk of bark and moved on to a branch, being careful to accurately represent the characteristics I had seen on the arbor day site: how the branches grow out of the tree, how the leaves are arranged on the branch, the relative size, color, and texture of the berries all over it. Leaves are, bless ’em, portable, so if you tire of people’s stares, or worry about paranoid neighbors calling the cops, you can take a fallen leaf indoors for the rest of the session. My leaf was covered in little nipples (yep, that’s what they’re called), which I thought were bugs or disease, but turned out to be characteristic of my tree species which, after triple-checking with the Arbor Day foundation, a UMN list of common trees in my state, and a YouTube video for confirmation, I found out was a hackberry. As my first tree it is naturally special, but get this bonus: it has edible fruit! Those little berries that my dog regularly snacks on are tasty little morsels – very little, as the seed takes up almost all the space, but if you get them at the right time of year, the fruit tastes like fig. This was probably the best tree I could have started with, because I love to eat, and because I am always, in the back of my mind, looking for ways I might be useful after the demi-apocalypse. They’ll definitely let me live when I deliver these little delicacies.

Once I got to know this tree, I saw it everywhere. Not only because we were now acquainted, but because my block is lined with hackberries. Stupid human planning, and here’s hoping no hackberry disease comes to our lovely street anytime soon, but now I know.

This is the practical. I now know a tree. Several, in fact, as I repeated this practice some weekends while the weather was good – not as much as I’d like, but, you know, I know some trees, if you get my drift. The unintended but unsurprising bonus was how this intimacy breathed life into my spirit. I see trees differently now. I see the world differently now because I have paid attention to a handful of trees.

It can happen with any element of nature – birds, trees, insects, flowers. Once you really get to know a few of them, you are invited into a world in which the contrast has been turned up at least 100%. Once you know a thing, you literally see it in a way you could not previously. And once you can see that specific category of thing, you can use that awesome brain power to identify difference – how is this tree unlike my tree? What animals like to hang on my tree? What creatures prefer others? Which of my trees look healthy, which don’t? What in the immediate environment might influence that? The wacky thing, for me, is that all of these questions came from a place of curiosity, not of intellectual greed. The more I paid attention, the more my attention expanded. I started boring my partner on walks with my constant, simple observations like, Look at that beautiful trunk! What a scratchy leaf! Why aren’t there branches growing there? I don’t think one needs to know the name of something – cultural or scientific – to connect with it, but I do think I need to know some name, have some way to identify it so that it becomes real to me, and the ecosystem it interacts with becomes like the home town of a loved one – an abstraction now infused with meaning because it means something to someone you care about.

Until I started practicing it myself, I didn’t understand this apparent paradox: how can naming a thing, which is essentially putting it in a box and separating it from myself, bring me closer to it? I think of the neuroscientist who wrote about her massive stroke, explaining that the loss of words for the things around her allowed her to feel fully at one with everything. I don’t have a definitive answer (and don’t have to – I’m all about the nonbinary these days) but I think it has something to do with attention. For example, if we looked at all of humanity as nothing but people, it might keep us from stereotyping them as friend, enemy, good, bad; but if we resist any classification, we are left without an understanding of the whole or any of its parts. Once we start paying attention, we make note of differences, but also similarities and qualities and patterns. We start to see the object in relation to ourselves and other things we know, which connects it to us, even if only in difference and novelty. It’s not a perfect relationship, but it is a relationship.

Once I started paying attention to just the 1/2 dozen trees I’d sketched or otherwise identified in my neighborhood, I was also able to assimilate some of the knowledge I’d picked up from the books I’d been reading to theoretically connect with nature for years. For example, knowing that trees interact and act as communities to protect and defend themselves led me to predict and confirm that none of the Black Walnuts in the area would bear fruit this year because we had a remarkably dry summer and they were collectively conserving their resources. I felt terribly smart.

The living world has come alive for me in a way that is simple and tangible since I started sketching trees. I feel like I’m a part of my species-rich community, that we are actually connected in the sameness of growth and change and struggle and rest, and in the distinctions that live and breathe into and out of each other; our interdependence making each others’ existence possible. Knowing the plants and animals around you used to be essential to human survival in a quite literal way. Now those of us with a mediated relationship with our food and water can live without that, but it’s a lonely existence. As humans have isolated from the life around us, are we not like tourists in a foreign culture? Navigating our way through greenery and fecund landscapes either gingerly, not wanting to stir up trouble; or tendentiously, like an imperialist set only on extraction and exploitation. So many people are feel so lonely and disconnected. I think the massive pet adoption that swept many countries at the beginning of the pandemic was a wise response. Finding a way to connect to any of the infinite varieties of life that bloom in all but the most persecuted communities simply makes all life better.

Rethinking Anthropomorphism

https://www.npr.org/2021/10/09/1044619808/opinion-a-gorillas-life-and-death-in-2-viral-photos

In my too-recent somatic experience of really feeling like a part of a mutualistic, interdependent world of plants, animals, and the constant exchange of electrons, anthropomorphism has come to mean something quite different than it used to. I don’t know if it’s the wider acceptance of Buddhist and Indigenous philosophies or the climate crisis or something else, but I’m also seeing more blurred lines in recent non-fiction books, including pieces about how the brain works, ecology, health, and others.

Here’s my supersimple explanation, based on nothing but my own education, of the evolution of anthropomorphism in Western culture. In the Romantic era across Europe and elsewhere, there was a shift in the intellectual classes towards an appreciation of nature and the other living things in it (some of them, anyway). You see this all over the English and European poetry of that era (late 18th-early 19th century), and the influence on American, especially Transcendentalist, literature as well. In a culture of hierarchies and human supremacy, granting human thoughts and feelings to “lesser” animals seemed a conciliatory and respectful practice. More recently, the ascription of human characteristics to non-humans has been considered childish and aspirational – something fanciful that we do to pretend that animals are more like us and force affinity where there is none. It is this position that is showing some much needed deterioration.

Unfortunately, some of the most habitual line-drawers between humans and others have been scientists. Much of the non-Right in this country is very rah-rah about science these days, and with good reason. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think that the purported objectivity of science precludes the field from prejudicial framing and, thus, prejudicial conclusions (see Braiding Sweetgrass for more on all of this). Naturalists, biologists, and other scientists of the living world have often been the first to dismiss talk of plant intelligence or the attribution of “human” emotions to non-human things. I understand how highlighting shared traits could be perceived as anthropocentric, that we should let animals just be animals. However, we can only understand the world in a context we recognize, and we are not just observers of the natural world, but participants in it. In order to participate we have to connect. In order to connect, just as with humans, we find things in common. If every emotional or motivational or intellectual connection we discover is dismissed as projection, it makes it very difficult to feel an affinity with other life forms. We are a part of this world. And other things in this world think and feel and act in ways similar to us. Trees have elders who help out younger trees, elephants perform ritual goodbyes for dead community members. Many animals hug each other with affection, or for consolation or conflict resolution.

Scientists employ […] technical language to distance ourselves from the rest of the animals. They call ‘kissing’ in chimps ‘mouth-to-mouth contact’; they call ‘friends’ between primates ‘favorite affiliation partners’ [….] if an animal can beat us at a cognitive task […] they write it off as instinct, not intelligence. Primatologist Frans de Waal terms this ‘linguistic castration.

Why Fish Don’t Exist. Lulu Miller. pp 181-2

We’ve hung onto this hard line between human and non-human life as if Darwin and his ilk never existed, as if we still didn’t know that humans are just animals that evolved in a distinctive way. We have been so enamored of our “superior” intelligence that we couldn’t even acknowledge that intelligence is a characteristic shared with other living things, let alone that others might be more intelligent than us in any area. But we are finally starting to give non-human life the credit it deserves, finally starting to talk about the way trees send messages through forests to protect each other, the way octopuses and grouper work together to hunt, or a crow manipulates tools, as intelligence.

When we have acknowledged non-human intelligence, we have judged animals based on how well they can do what we have classified as “human” talents – recognizing themselves in a mirror, performing tricks, remembering where items are placed, etc. Anything that is not an area wherein humans excel is classified as instinct. This overused quotation is still sound:

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

Or we will believe it is stupid. It’s even harder to get people to recognize the intelligence of non-animal life. How can something without eyes or what we call a brain think? Calling trees or fungi smart is almost embarrassing.

We have also held our species up as emotionally superior, capable of a wider range of feelings and sympathies than other animals, despite the at-least-equal amount of evidence that we are less compassionate, more cruel, and indubitably more destructive than any creature that ever lived. We see ourselves as more individually distinctive as well, less of a type and more of a solo creature, even though we are perhaps less able to independently care for ourselves than any other plant or animal, less able every year, it seems. Plus, anyone who’s had more than one dog knows that there is no such thing as a “dog personality”. Every dog I’ve had has been at least as distinct as each of my friends.

Indigenous cultures have had little trouble recognizing and respecting our species’ essential and interconnected place in the natural world, because to do otherwise would be to put your life and the health of your community at risk. The only way to live off the land is to live with the land, to recognize what was required of us and what could be expected of and negotiated with other species. The religions that emerged out of this life reflected that mutualism, just as European religions, placing the idle and intellectual above and apart from farmers and hunters and those who worked with the earth, created religions of hierarchy and separation. We have long dismissed indigenous knowledge as mythical and unscientific, because the science used was not recognized as legitimate. But it is science, based on generations of observation and experimentation, and with conclusions rationally drawn therein, just as with non-indigenous science.

Early “big e” Environmentalism believed that the best thing for humans to do with nature was leave it alone, as if we are not a product, part, and partaker of nature; as if we’ve become so far removed from the source of our very being that we cannot possibly be anything but a scourge to the living world. I’m not mocking. I get it. Certainly, keeping drilling out of the arctic and development off coastlines is understandable. This was a motivation behind our National Parks. Protecting nature from us is perhaps not as self-promoting as some other practices, but it’s just as isolating and unnatural. Seeing ourselves exclusively as a threat to the rest of the world is just as insane as seeing the world exclusively as a threat to us. It’s like labeling your liver as a threat – sure, it can do damage when things go wrong, but it’s also an essential part of the package, one the body can’t live without and one that cannot live without the body.

Why do we insist on drawing these lines? Does it make us feel special? Do we refuse to acknowledge our kinship with other living things for the same reason we refused to acknowledge that the earth was not the center of the universe? Is it some quieter but still extant idea that in order to have our Special Relationship With God, we must be different from everything else? Do we cling to the favoritism of a distant, immortal, esoteric being at the expense of forming meaningful relationships with our mortal kin all around us?

If we do tend this direction as a capitalist, Euro-centric culture, what good does it do us? Does separating ourselves from everything in the natural world improve our wellbeing in any way? If so, how? Because it allows us to destroy entire ecosystems, species, dramatically reduce the livability for most things on the planet, without compunction? Maybe the ease, comfort, and continual newness for which we sacrifice our world does make us happier, in a way. I certainly like central heat and Youtube Alan Watts lectures on demand, but they don’t make me any less lonely. The loneliness that emerged from deciding we were the only intelligent species on the planet may have created our obsession with the things and conveniences for which we sacrifice our only home in order to fill the lonely maw inside us. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that doesn’t seem very smart.

In the new edition to her gorgeous book, World as Lover, World as Self, Joanna Macy writes that our dependence on and concern for our othered neighbors may not be as alien as we are led to think, and the refusal to recognize our compassion for the world does not serve us.

Many therapists have difficulty crediting the notion that concerns for the general welfare of our planet might be acute enough to cause distress. Trained to assume that all our drives are ego-centered, they tend to treat expressions of this distress as manifestations of personal neurosis. […] “What might this concern represent that you are avoiding in your own life?” In such a way is our anguish for our world delegitimized,

and even mocked, especially when expressed by indigenous groups who have historically and spiritually cultivated and respected a connection to the world they interact with, and thus have felt the pain of detachment more deeply than most of the rest of us.

We are told that we could not possibly feel a true emotional connection to things that are not human, that the only legitimate loss is human loss (the loss of a pet is only considered significant if compared to a human, e.g. it’s a member of the family, it’s like a child). What does this denial cost us? How much less lonely would we be if we recognized our kinship with trees and squirrels and forests? It would likely place us more thoroughly in the world, which would benefit the rest of the planet as well as ourselves.

Going on a hike doesn’t just make us feel better because it “clears our head”. Nature itself makes us better in ways we do and don’t understand. MRIs have shown that

When participants viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up, but when they viewed urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety were activated. It appears as though nature inspires feelings that connect us to each other and our environment.

https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-does-nature-impact-our-wellbeing

Having a view of the outdoors from a hospital room reduces recovery time and the need for painkillers after surgery. In psychiatric units, studies have found that “being in nature reduced feelings of isolation, promoted calm, and lifted mood among patients.” Just 20-30 minutes in a “natural” environment significantly reduces cortisol levels.Trees emit phytoncides to deter insects, which generate immune responses in humans, increasing and activating the white blood cells that kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies.

Depression, anxiety, and drug overdoses are higher than ever recorded in the US. Where can we go for comfort? What if we could turn to a river or flock of geese for a sense of connection, endurance, shared struggle, and rest? We can, but we rarely view immersion in the world beyond the one humans have created as a real place of sanctuary, even though it is our collective ancestral home. Is the drama of the human condition the result of us putting our intellect above and apart from everything else?

Could the recognition of non-human cognition make our lives better? Could it make us better neighbors, better tenants? Could changing the language of anthropomorphism tear down the wall between us and the rest of the planet? I truly fail to see the harm in recognizing the humanity, for lack of a better word, in the vibrant & varied lives with which we share the Earth. Unless we are deliberately separating ourselves in order to keep guiltlessly extracting and destroying? Recognizing our kinship on a global scale would force a shift in worldview, one that might put a stop to our extractive and exploitative economy. I dunno. I think it would be worth it, for all of us earthlings.


Creative Imperfection (Perfection, pt 5)

Paris through the Window, Marc Chagall

We would have stagnated and likely died off as a species if we had settled for perfection. Evolution requires variation – a mutation from expectations, from what was extant or even conceivable before it happened. Our selectively cultivated foods – our pluots and actually tasty apples – came out of a desire for variety and difference: improvement, not perfection. When the focus shifted to profit, perfection took primacy over variety. (In the narrowest sense of the word profit, meaning a strictly financial benefit for the titular “owners” of the item in question, because the loss to the world has been enormous.) When we move from variation to perfection, we get shit. Look at the strawberry. Mass produced, global strawberries are engineered to be very red, very large, and very firm – the perfect image of a strawberry, and perfect for easy picking and long, bumpy transport. They are also flavorless. We are so averse to imperfect looking foods that we created a space for an alternative, radical industry based on selling “ugly” produce to people on subscription, because grocery stores won’t sell them. Because we won’t buy them. Perfect-ly good food, wasted because it doesn’t fit our model of what a particular food should look like.

Likewise, any ideal is just as timebound, subjective, and limited. Who created these standards? In the US, certainly, they are largely male, wealthy, White, able-bodied … you can keep adding privileged identities. What are those guys missing? The answers are infinite. Their idea of perfection has led us to waste food, people, ideas, art. Perfect children were quiet and still and obedient. Perfect citizens conformed with social expectations and followed laws, which have at many times been exceptionally cruel and immoral.

What even is imperfection? Is it just a name we give something that doesn’t fit the way we want it to be, the way our necessarily limited human expectations circumscribe the parameters or potential of a being or object? Is perfection simply acceptance? Is that what Neem Karoli Baba demonstrated when he instructed Larry Brilliant to eradicate smallpox while unironically insisting that everything was exactly as it should be? Is a world without pain and horrors a perfect world? Or is the world always perfect, regardless of Global Weirding, genocide, pick your cause; and is our empathy and grief and work to change those circumstances as inextricable a part of the perfection as the ghastly circumstances themselves? Is a perfect world one in which suffering is present for us to relieve? Is that super self-serving and monstrous? That, just as plants and animals must die to feed other plants and animals, and forests must burn to allow for new growth, our human world must be filled with resource extraction and cruelty? Maybe. Or maybe we just throw out the idea of a perfect world and instead live the paradox of simultaneous acceptance and opposition.  

Buddhist, Native American, and other religions imply the idea of an individual entity being perfect independent of the community which literally and figuratively keeps them alive is absurd. Our selves don’t end at our “skin-encapsulated ego” (Alan Watts), and neither does the strawberry’s. That perfect strawberry is here reinterpreted as a massive failure because it poisons the soil, the farm workers who pick it, the air we breathe through the chemical inputs to grow it and fossil fuels to ship it; and denies nutrients and spreads disappointment to the people who eat it. In these interconnected worldviews there is no place for perfection, which attempts to delineate something that is by nature fluid. As the infinitely amazing Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy writes, we have deluded ourselves with the idea that power, or success, means domination. “This is not the way nature works. Living systems evolve in complexity, flexibility, and intelligence through interaction with each other.”[i] Evolution is never just personal; our environment decides which mutations are worth reproducing. Every creative act, every change is a collaboration between living things and their environments and cultures.

In the creative realm, the concept of perfection puts restrictions on what a thing can be, and creative potential can be smothered by such boundaries. If there is perfection to be reached, there is an idea of what is acceptable or appropriate, and therefore an unspoken idea of what is unacceptable, which is pretty much anything unfamiliar and innovative. If War and Peace is “the perfect novel,” where does that put The Vegetarian?[ii] Or Beloved? Or any number of works from other cultures that I have not been exposed to? What is a perfect face and who decides that? We’ve all seen the destructive potential of “the perfect body” and many carry that burden to the detriment of our health and happiness. The idea of perfection has led us to waste food, people, ideas, art. At one time, perfect art was representative, and representative only of the “noble”. Every genre of art rejected the previous genre’s idea of perfection. Nadia Comanechi achieved “perfect 10s” in her Olympic routines in the 70s. Now that same performance wouldn’t even get her into the Olympics. But that’s just time, you might say. Indeed, time is a characteristic of culture, and just as arbitrary and whimsical in classifying excellence. Think of all we would want (in the dual, Shakespearean sense of the word) if previous standards of perfection were enforced. Future creators will say the same thing about our standards, even though that is hard to imagine. A culture of perfection makes the new harder to imagine. We assume that we know what a thing can be, and knowing is the beginning of the end. A beginner’s mind is a space for exploration, creativity, and growth; an expert’s tends to resist change

With perfection out of the way, there are so many more ways to be. Perfection is static, proscriptive, and therefore inhibiting. If the nature of all being is boundless, as Buddhism and psychedelics tell us, then either nothing is perfect, or everything is. And if we are perfect and thereby liberated from the pointless goal of achieving perfection, what could we do with the energy we now spend on self-improvement and material comforts to salve our cravings? We could make gloriously imperfect art, perhaps, or grow imperfect tomatoes, or form imperfect, diverse, messy, mutualistic communities that cultivate the joy of future imperfections.


[i] World as Lover, World as Self– 30th anniversary edition, p.152

[ii] The Vegetarian, Nan Kang, translated by Deborah Smith. Perhaps my favorite novel of the last decade. (©2007, English translation ©2016)