If you’re thirsty, you crave water. If you’re hungry, you want food. If you’re lonely, you yearn for companionship. Once our basic needs are met, we sometimes strive for perfection or seek self-actualization.
A recent discussion with my six-year-old grandson, Ryland, helped me realize how misguided striving for perfection can be. Ryland, getting frustrated with a picture he was drawing, told me that he wanted it to be perfect. When I asked him what he meant by perfect, Ryland explained that it means everything is exactly right.
Ryland and I then spent some time trying to think of things that might be “exactly right” or perfect. I started by telling Ryland that I make mistakes sometimes, so I know I’m not perfect. Ryland suggested that maybe Andy, the cat, was perfect because he’s cute and fun to play with. But then Ryland remembered that Andy poops and sometimes scratches things, so he’s not perfect.
“What about toys?” Ryland wondered. At first, he suggested some toys that might be perfect, but then he remembered that toys can break and sometimes they’re too expensive. We finally decided that maybe trees are perfect because they’re beautiful, provide shade, and give birds and insects a place to live. Yet, the news that evening reported that a branch had broken off of a cottonwood tree and killed a much-loved camel at the zoo.
So how should we deal with this idea of perfection – is anything perfect and is “striving for perfection” a meaningful goal? We sometimes hear the term “self-actualization” and may equate this with self-fulfillment or becoming all that we can be. Is this what we yearn for?
In 1943 American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, introduced the idea that human behavior is motivated by a hierarchy of basic needs. This hierarchy is usually presented in the shape of a triangle with self-actualization at the peak. Maslow described self-actualization as becoming everything that one is capable of becoming. For spiritual seekers, this may suggest perfection, where one’s life is considered to be in perfect balance, one’s intentions pure, and enlightenment attained. Some thinkers and authors, including Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, question the merit of this interpretation of self-actualization. Their concern is on the self-indulgent or excessive contemplation of self at the expense of broader concerns.
Nadkarni, in her book Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees, suggests that a focus on spirituality and mindfulness may be more meaningful than self-actualization as a goal. She also proposed a revision of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Her premise is that our yearnings or needs include play, imagination, spirituality, and mindfulness. Attending to these yearnings won’t make us perfect, but they can greatly enrich our lives.
A message I left with Ryland is that I’m OK with things – including myself -- not being perfect. I told him I try to be good and do what is right, but that I didn’t expect to be perfect. I also told him that some days the most perfect thing I can do is say “hello” to someone who seems sad or just be kind to the people close to me.
I’ve come to the conclusion that yearning for perfection in ourselves can be counterproductive. A more “perfect life,” I believe, is based on compassion and concern for the well-being of all living things. It’s also based on striving to establish a more “beloved community” rather than just developing a more perfect self.