Think about the things in your life that you’re unhappy about.
It might be something about yourself – what are you dissatisfied with? What about you makes you feel ashamed, or despondent, or fearful?
Or it could be some circumstance. What is there in your life that makes you feel angry, or worried, or helpless?
The Stoics taught that these feelings of distress are caused by how we view the world; as Epictetus said “it’s not events that disturb people, but the opinions they hold about those events”. Buddhism, likewise, proposes that the cause of emotional suffering is to be found in what they call “attachment” or “craving” – attitudes to things, rather than the things themselves. The same theme is found in Epicureanism and in the philosophy of Albert Ellis.
Ellis taught that
“whenever obnoxious or unpleasant activating events occur in people’s lives, they have a choice: of making themselves feel healthily and self-helpingly sorry, disappointed, frustrated, and annoyed, or making themselves feel unhealthily and self-defeatingly horrified, terrified, panicked, depressed, self-hating, and self-pitying.”
Epicurus was a little pithier. He said
“The misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool”.
I want to develop these ideas by looking at the idea of ‘perfection’. We blithely talk about perfection and imperfection, things being right or wrong. I want you to think about what that actually means.
First of all, think about when we call something “imperfect”. I want to suggest that what this means is “an imperfect example of X“, for some value of X. So the screen you’re looking at right now is, perhaps, not a great example of a writing surface – depending on the device, it might be too small, or vertical, or easily damaged, or not adjustable. But why should I want to rate it as a writing surface in the first place?
Well, I can rate it as anything I like, I think. When I haven’t had a windscreen scraper to hand, I’ve been known to use a credit card; when I haven’t had a dustpan I’ve used a cereal packet. There are reasons why a credit card isn’t ideal as a windscreen scraper. But there are also reasons why it isn’t ideal as a payment method.
The category we put something in – this is a portable desk, that is a dustpan, this is a credit card – is determined by us. A particular rock hasn’t been created by God to be a doorstop or a paperweight or a murder weapon; it’s been co-opted by someone for those purposes. If I’m looking around for a rotten tomato to throw at a politician, a fresh one just won’t do the job. So a fresh tomato would be right for that purpose (a salad) but not for this one (assault).
Every time we talk about something being perfect or imperfect, brilliant or rubbish, hopeless or ideal, we should (at least implicitly, and often explicitly) say in what role we’re judging it.
I think that, when you do this, you will find two fundamental truths.
- The judgments that lie at the heart of your greatest sorrows or fears or shames are best expressed with some sort of “should” word. I should have more willpower, he ought to show more consideration, they must not find out, I need to be loved, I have a right to be told. These “shoulds” are your demands about how things damn well ought to conform to your categories; how, when something fails to be a perfect example of what you wanted, that’s an insult to you, offensive in its nature. Things must be just so or they’re all wrong.
- If you try to do without these should-words, something odd happens. You start to understand that everything is already perfect in the one category that nature placed it in; itself. I may be a bit rubbish as a gardener, a housekeeper or a marathon runner; but in the one role that really belongs to me, I’m perfect. Never in the history of the world up to today has there ever been – nor, for the rest of time will there ever again be – anyone who was as perfectly Alec Brady as I am. And the fact that I’m not as good as you at mental arithmetic or speaking Swahili or driving doesn’t make me imperfect. Anyone who is good at those things might be described as being an imperfect copy of Alec Brady. For which they are entitled to be grateful – there’s no reason why they ought to be a perfect Alec, they’re much better being not perfect.
So when you can’t find the windscreen scraper and you have to use a credit card, you might catch yourself thinking, “this is rubbish”.
Stop. Rephrase it. “Sure, this isn’t doing the best possible job of windscreen scraping”. It hasn’t got a handle, like my scraper has (nor should it!), though it’s better than a sycamore leaf or a copy of Gray’s Anatomy or my hat. For this purpose. (Not for keeping my head warm, obviously. For that purpose it’s quite useless).
This practice, this discipline, creates a new set of mental habits, a new perspective, a new default setting for your brain. It’s not about discovering some new fact about the world, it’s about seeing what you’ve always seen, but seeing it differently. By dropping the judgmental language of ‘perfect’ or ‘rubbish’, by replacing it with non-judgmental preferring and disliking, you discover that things are not perfect.
And it’s fine.
Further Reading and Viewing
A Guide to Shameless Happiness by Will Ross
10 Steps to Overcoming Perfectionism by David Humes
Not Perfect by Tim Minchin