Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Enemy of the good

One of the very few times I found myself impressed by Bill Clinton was when he was quoted, in a profile in The New Yorker, as advising us not to "let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Later, though, I found out that these words were Voltaire's, and that Slick Willie was not necessarily the fountain of wisdom I had briefly taken him for. (Still, Bubba does remain immortal for the line "I feel your pain", not to mention "it depends on what your definition of 'is' is".)

Wherever it came from, the phrase "the perfect is the enemy of the good" is a tremendously powerful one in its implications. Ever since Plato started kicking around the concept of the Ideal, mankind has been in thrall to the delusion of perfectability, and nothing has made it unhappier. Everyone knows by now that countless lives during the twentieth century were needlessly sacrificed in pursuit of the unattainable "perfect society" -- the utopia that could only be realized through the elimination of those who were not ideal, such as Jews or bourgeois or gypsies or whoever else. Nowadays, though, the delusion is not manifested so much on the collective as on the individual level; we've turned away from gulags and gas-ovens and decided to torture ourselves for a change instead. How many of us simmer with resentment because we can't find the perfect job -- grow cynical because we can't find the perfect relationship -- or despise ourselves for not having perfect bodies? Even Bill Clinton, to bring things full circle, did not count himself lucky to have assumed the leadership of the free world on a fluke (and to have managed to get re-elected as well), but instead felt disappointed that he had left no greater legacy to humanity than Monica Lewinsky's little blue dress.

If we are ever going to love life, other people, or ourselves, we have to learn to get used to imperfection; we have to let go of the world as we would like it to be, and embrace the world as it is. I am not saying that this is easy: I'm far from having done it myself. But I am certainly saying that it is necessary.

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