Neal Gabler, writing in today’s Boston Globe, [discusses]( what he calls the new American Dream–perfection.

A DISGRUNTLED New York mother recently filed a lawsuit against her 4-year-old daughter’s preschool, charging that the school had reneged on its promise to adequately prepare the girl for an Ivy League education. Apparently the kids were playing with blocks when they should have been discussing Wittgenstein. Understandably the suit was met with ridicule as another example of overbearing parenting, but it is also an example of how many of us, especially in the middle and upper-middle classes, not only aspire to be perfect; we expect perfection.

Dreams can be very powerful in creating images of worlds which, through our actions today, come forth in the future. The foundation for sustainability from which I come is a vision of flourishing, a form of dream. Sustainability is the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever, a dream I believe is attainable. Dreams that are impossible or rest on some hidden pathology are, conversely, very dangerous as they cannot be met or result only in undesirable outcomes.
I have written recently about the presence of so much anger the public and private space in the US. Dreams are, in the context of Gabler’s article, metaphors for promises to be kept in the future. Persistent dreams like the American Dream with its specific promises, are expected to be fulfilled in one’s lifetime, usually in time to be enjoyed while one is still in the “prime” of life. The classic American Dream, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, two chickens in every pot, success, and happiness and more, has fueled individual striving and political rhetoric for as long as the nation has been in existence.
Events of the past few years have awakened many still living with that dream from their reveries. The dream has become nightmarish, as the means to realize its goals are vanishing or have completely disappeared. Awareness of the huge disparities in wealth that have grown monstrously only accentuate the disappointments and futility in the 95% of Americans (or more) that now see the promises they have banked on evaporate. The inevitable result is anger. Broken promises, especially those that are maintained and repeated over long periods, create anger directed at the source of those promises.
General anger in the electorate resulted in a very negative election and new government. Not being able to single out the promiser leads to a diffuse and undirected anger. Since the roots of this American Dream go back to Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues, the anger is visited upon the nearest convenient party. As long as we are promised some rosy future that cannot or is very unlikely to be realized, anger is bound to show up at the point that those holding the promise accept the reality that it is broken.
I have connected sustainability, which is a kind of promise but not quite, to a vision of flourishing. Flourishing and perfection are categorically different. Sustainability never promises anything only the possibility of getting there. It is true that we were promised only the pursuit of happiness by the founding fathers, but over time the journey, that is the opportunity and means, has been lost in the mistaken belief that the end was promised.
Now Gabler writes we seek perfection as the goal of life:

Thus not only have the terms of success changed but also the very terms of life. For a person who can live within his illusions, the career has to be perfect, the wife has to be perfect, the children have to be perfect, the home has to be perfect, the car has to be perfect, the social circle has to be perfect. We agonize a lot over perfection, and we dedicate a lot of time, energy, and money to it — everything from plastic surgery to gated communities of McMansions to the professionalization of our children’s activities like soccer and baseball to pricey preschools that prepare 4-year-olds for Harvard. After all, we are all on the Ivy League track now.

I am surprised by my feelings of sadness on reading the column. Perhaps it comes by his use of “agonize.” To live a life of agony is about as far from flourishing as I can picture. If the standards of “perfection” lie in society’s judgments as they do in this story, there will be no escaping agony, disappointment, and ultimately anger. Perfection or any public norm will always be dictated by powerful interests who press their own assessments of what counts onto the public. Perfection will always be in transition and just out of hand. Those who strive for it are doomed as Sisyphus was.
It does not have to be so. There is another way of thinking about perfection that circumvents the trap in Gabler’s story. Perfection can also mean complete, as in a perfect circle. Flourishing comes from this kind of perfection. It is the result of acting out of concerns for oneself, others, and the world–attending to the essential domains of care that are what make us human. It means tending to family, for example, according to an authentic, inner sense of what counts. Completion in not an absolute end, but a state in a never-ending pursuit of flourishing. There is a sense of enough, at least for the moment. Perfection, in the other sense that Gabler speaks of, can only spring from inauthenticity; it is driven entirely by the “they” who define it, never from within. There is no hope of finding peace and completion in a life designed by entirely by others. While some may find the story of the nursery school suit ridiculous, I find it immensely saddening.

One Reply to “The Curse of Perfection”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *