There are different ways to look at life, and two of these are captured in a couple of seemingly contradictory sayings. The more famous aphorism is this one: “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” but you’ll also hear its converse: “The good is the enemy of the best.” The second expression cautions that we sometimes settle for something that is merely good enough when we should be aiming higher; excellence is certainly something for which to strive.
In today’s blog, though, I’d like to concentrate on the original: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” In striving for the perfect thing, we can miss the good. We live in a fallen world, less than perfect. Likewise, you and I are incomplete, unfinished, imperfect. Yet this does not mean that we lack anything good at all or that this imperfect world has nothing to offer.
Being more than halfway through my expected lifespan, I have moved from the perfectionist world of the second saying to the contented world of the first, though each has its place. I have come to understand that contentedness is a very great gift and that true perfection only exists in Heaven.
There is another, similar, saying: “Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.” Many, believing that life should be a peachy, are resentful to discover that even peaches have pits. Such an expectation is a sure-fire recipe for resentment, discouragement, and depression.
I think this is one of the problems with marriage today. Despite the modern tendency to be cynical about pretty much everything, many still have very high ideals expectations of marriage: that it will always be romantic, joyful, and fulfilling, that love will magically solve every problem.
This is not realistic. Marriage is like life; it has its ups and downs. There are 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. There are many spouses who, though basically decent, do not act perfectly all of the time.
When people enter marriage with unrealistically high expectations, they may be tempted to focus on the negative things, to magnify them because they are not perfect as was expected; resentments begin to build. It’s sad, really. The marriage may not actually be that bad; the less-than-ideal spouse may not really be so awful.
But the perfect becomes the enemy of the good; decent things are trampled underfoot in the elusive search for the perfect, the best, the ideal.
Indeed, there is yet another related saying about marriage: “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 as we chase in vain after the perfect. There is always a better parish, a better job, a better boss, a better house, a better car, a better neighborhood, a better deal.
There is something freeing and calming about being able to accept the good, the imperfect, and be content with it. The perfect will come, but probably not before Heaven. In the meantime, the good will suffice. Sometimes we don’t recognize or appreciate the good until we accept that the best, the perfect, will have to wait.
All of this occurred to me as I watched this animated short about a “man” who creates a work of art. At first he loves it, but then, noticing an imperfection, he is driven to try to make it perfect, even as everything else around him is being destroyed in the process. Just before it is too late, he realizes his folly. Clinging desperately to his creation, he learns to love it as it is. To some extent this has been my journey; I pray that it is yours, too.
Image credit: saku takakusaki
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On Imperfection, As Seen in an Animation