One person’s perfectionism is the other’s neurosis. So let’s stop quibbling over how to label it and figure out how to fix it.
It seems that naming something gives the namer some sort of power over it: think for example of the Bogey Man, much less scary when you call it that. We can start by looking at some of the attitudes and actions (or inactions) suggested by the polite term “perfectionism.” These can occur across a spectrum that ranges from hesitation to complete paralysis and includes: chronic indecision, procrastination, anxiety in the face of options and a wide variety of the sorts of behaviors the British call “dithering.”
Once you’ve diagnosed yourself as a ditherer (or worse) and before you begin budgeting for the psychotherapist, try tapping into some of the resources that are easily at hand, and free. Well, that is if lingering student loans don’t continue to keep a price tag on your course in Philosophy 101.
Take the times when I have still not written the thank you note, because I don’t have time to write the whole and memorable letter I want it to be. Or I’ve taken a pass on Weight Watchers because I know I must and can lose much more than two pounds per week without group intervention. I know it’s time to recall the advice of my brother who used wisely to nudge me on with the reminder, “Remember, honey, the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Uncommonly good common sense that applies to the situation.
And if that doesn’t work, I have learned that a fellow named Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is also a very convincing counselor. Remember Leibniz from late night cramming for the History of Philosophy exam? The shorthand reminder about his theory that the principle of reality was something called a “Monad.” His tag line was, “This is the best of all possible worlds.”
Voltaire had a heyday with that phrase which he parodied in the story of the starry eyed optimist Candide. Leonard Bernstein kept the joke going into the 20th Century with his musical of the same name. But it turns out that their joke at the expense of Leibniz may have obscured the very practical insight at the heart of his philosophy. To understand how that happened just change the emphasis before repeating the phrase. Instead of saying “This is the best of all possible worlds,” say “This is the best of all possible worlds.” See the difference?
If at this point you find yourself recalling that the academic pigeonhole for Leibniz was “rationalist” and that his talk of the “best of all possible worlds” sounds like a classic rationalization of bad times, it may be wise to take a second look. His was not just the reflection of someone who took a look at his 17th century Europe and decided that it was a perfect paradise. I think it was the world view of one who very hardheadedly grasped that all the abstract, theoretical worlds of “might have beens” or “should have beens” or “could bes” were just so many distractions and that the real business of living lies in coming to terms with the gritty marvel of what really is.
Leibniz’s phrase appears in an essay that considers the goodness of God, the freedom of the human person and the origin of evil. In it he takes the position that the very roadblocks of life, the stones in the road en route to the great good things that live as theoretical possibilities actually make the world better and more tolerable by eliciting good human responses like courage. He had the unusual (and I think highly realistic) view that an entirely perfect world would be not only impossible but even intolerable.
For him the problem of evil is the problem of sorting out what is life-enhancing and what is life-diminishing. That sort of insight and attitude can be a very enabling tool to use in the work of making sense of the experience of limitation and of suffering. It is not simply the stoic, grit your teeth attitude expressed by those who say, “What doesn’t kill you can make you stronger.” It is more like the understanding of why it is that people who have weathered some of life’s storms are often more attractive human beings and more desirable friends than the “golden ones” who seem to sail through life without ever experiencing a setback.
It is far too easy to relegate the study of philosophy, and even more the philosophers themselves, to a mental museum. In that museum everything is bigger than life, like a hall of dinosaurs that it is hard to connect with any animal life we have actually experienced. In that context, the “problems” are the sorts that are much too big ever to get solved. The theories are much too abstract ever to intersect with life as most of us live it.
In a way, that’s not surprising. There is the distance of history and of linguistic style that separates us from many of the greatest philosophers. And then there is the simple matter of trying to put an insight into words, in any age or language. Think for a moment of the last time you tried to explain one of your own “lightbulb moments,” one of those insights when for a moment something that was impossibly complex appeared remarkably simple and sorted out. Chances are that trying to capture that moment in language may often obscure rather than reveal the meaning you saw for a moment.
That process reminds me of a wonderful definition of poetry that I remember as being Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those behind to reflect on what was seen in a moment. It may be that the great philosophers are best understood and appreciated when one of the catch phrases associated with them connects with and illuminates a very specific moment of living. In that moment, a path is opened, a connection is made and both the very particular experience and the insight that makes sense of it are joined by an association that provides the path that firmly connects them. In that moment, it becomes evident what it means to say “philosophy is a system of ideas for making sense of experience.”
In this process of partnering with philosophers in the enterprise of making sense of one’s experience, experience is both the stimulus and the common ground. It can become productive in both directions, viewing one’s own experience from the vantage point of the philosopher’s insight and vice versa. The philosopher’s view illuminates the experience and seeing the philosophy in relation to common human experience gives it a reality and a utility it may never have had as an academic course.
Basic human experience can make much more sense of the philosophy and vice versa. In the light of that every day experience it “makes sense” in a way no theory can. So my advice is to see the “perfect” for what it often is in daily life. And don’t let it distract you from understanding life as a journey to be savored today, more than an impossible goal to be achieved sometime in the dim, distant future. I think Uncle Leibniz would agree.