When the Best is the Enemy of the Good

There are different ways to look at life. One saying goes: “The good is the enemy of the best.” Meaning, that we sometimes settle for second best when we should aim higher. This statement is not without its place, for excellence is something for which to strive.

And yet, there is another saying that goes: “The Best is the enemy of the good.” For it sometimes happens that, in striving for the perfect thing, we miss the truly good in other things. Frankly this world is in a fallen state, and less the fully perfect. Likewise you and I are incomplete, unfinished, imperfect. Yet this does not mean that we lack anything good, or that this imperfect world has nothing to offer.

I suppose that, being more than midway through my expected life, I have moved from the perfectionist world of the first saying to the contented world of the second saying, though both have their place. But I have come to learn that contentedness is a very great gift, and that true perfection waits till heaven.

There is yet another saying that goes: “Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.” For it frequently happens that many, having an insistence that life should be a peach, are resentful to discover that, even a peach has a pit. And expecting everything to be just peachy is a sure-fire recipe for resentment, discouragement and depression.

I think this is one problem with marriage today. Despite our current tendency to be cynical regarding just about everything, I have noticed that many still have very high ideals about marriage: that it will be romantic, joyful, fulfilling, and that love will solve every problem.

But this not realistic. Marriage is life. And life has ups and downs, things we like, and things we wish were different. There is no perfect spouse, and there is no perfect marriage. There are many good marriages that are far from perfect. Many decent spouses who do not live or act perfectly.

And when one enters a marriage with high expectations, they may be tempted to seize on the negative things, and magnify them, because they are not perfect, and resentments begin to build. And its sad really, but the marriage may not actually be that bad, and the less than ideal spouse not really so awful.

But the best becomes the enemy of the good, and decent things are trampled underfoot in an illusive search for the perfect, the best, the ideal.

Indeed, there is yet another saying that goes: “Many people want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal.”

We do a lot of this, discarding the good in an illusive search for the best or the perfect. There is always a better parish, a better Church, a better job, a better boss, a better house, a better car, a better neighborhood, a better deal.

But there is something about being able to accept the good, even the imperfect, and to be content with it. There’s something freeing and serene about not letting the best become the enemy of the good. The perfect will come, but probably not before heaven. In the meantime the good will suffice. And sometimes we don’t see it as good until we accept that the best and the perfect will have to wait.

And all this occurred to me as I watched this video about a “man” who creates a work of art. And he loves it. But then notices an imperfection and goes on a reckless errand to make it perfect. In the end he learns to love what is. To some extent this has been my journey, and I pray yours too.

11 Replies to “When the Best is the Enemy of the Good”

  1. It’s hard to reconcile the thirst for God, Who is perfect, with God’s economy, which all people are a part of. But pride is the source of anxiety and discouragement. If only God would reign in all hearts.

  2. Wow, did that video remind of two things: Giants Causeway, Ireland and RealCatholicTV.

    1. On a more serious note, here is an excerpt from Bl. John Paul II’s General Audience of July 21, 1999, courtesy of Jimmy Akin’s Secret Information Club (JimmyAkin.org) that I received in my inbox this morning:


      [Heaven] can be anticipated in some way today in sacramental life, whose centre is the Eucharist, and in the gift of self through fraternal charity.

      If we are able to enjoy properly the good things that the Lord showers upon us every day, we will already have begun to experience that joy and peace which one day will be completely ours.

      We know that on this earth everything is subject to limits, but the thought of the “ultimate” [last] realities helps us to live better the “penultimate” [next-to-last] realities.

      We know that as we pass through this world we are called to seek “the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col3:1), in order to be with him in the eschatological [i.e., end-of-the-world final] fulfillment, when the Spirit will fully reconcile with the Father “all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col 1:20).

  3. Thank you for another insightful post, Msgr. Pope. I have, by the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, come to appreciate just how special my wife is; in spite of both of us being so far from perfect. To be able to look beyond our imperfections and still love and cherish each other nonetheless could ONLY be possible through God’s blessing. I realized a long time ago if I wanted my marriage to be something beautiful, I had to let God lead the way. God bless you!

  4. This teaching should be made a permanent component of pre-Cana marriage counseling. It’s here but it needs to be made present to all engaged Catholic couples – seriously.

  5. Father,
    You impart wisdom here. You often do this. You act upon the gifts given to you.
    Please continue to help us. Persevere with the humilty and the serenity of Our Blessed Mother’s love.
    The path is long and painful. Let us all keep our eyes on the prize. Hold on.

  6. Oh, I needed to read this so much today, since I am doing revisions on my book and polishing and wondering when it will ever be good enough to go out to submission. Let not perfection get in the way of the good. Thank you!

  7. If there is a heaven for fictional, Chinese movie-detectives, then I am sure that Charlie Chan is looking down with holy envy on some of the sayings in this reflections.

    Expecting that one, by the force of will, may be able to free oneself from excessive expectations is, imo, an excessive expectation. For that reason, I try to remember to pray that Jesus, through the intercession of Mary, lift excessive expectations from me.

    “The fresh egg’s yellow part is too damn rare,
    but the white part is perfect for slicking back your hair.”–Tom Waits, from The Bottom of the World

  8. The greatest enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan. –Karl von Clauswitz

  9. Thank you! Very insightful…the Holy Spirit has been teaching me about this in particular lately. He reminds me to be content like a child in the arms of her parents and relish everything I’m given, “perfect” or not.

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