Making Peace With The Imperfections of Life
by Jayaram V
Why you should read this: This essay is about idealism and realism and tells you from the Upanishadic perspective why it is important to pursue your ideals without hating their opposites, and why you should treat the opposites and the dualities of life with sameness. You will understand the importance of sameness and why you should make peace with the imperfections of existence as you pursue your ideals and values with the spirit of a warrior and the wisdom of a seer.
What is perfection?
Perfection is defined as a state, quality or condition that is free from flaws, defects and errors, or a condition that does not require further improvements, additions, or embellishments. It denotes a “state of completeness, or flawlessness.” We may perceive such perfection in the configuration of a thing, its value, utility, function, output, or performance. We seek perfection in our lives, and in the things we seek or create, because we believe it improves the quality of our lives, happiness, achievement, and fulfillment.
We also entertain several assumptions about perfection. For example, we believe that God is a perfect Being who is endowed with numerous perfections. We also believe that certain objects, shapes and forms such a circle, or a square, are perfect in themselves. We also assume that certain numbers, conditions, products, behavior, conduct, thinking, techniques, and accomplishments are perfect. You might have also read about perfectionists who want to achieve perfection in all things they do or seek, or about the problem of perfectionism, which compels people to seek perfection in all aspects of their lives and behavior, setting high standards of performance and impossible goals, and subjecting themselves to constant critical self-evaluation and even self-condemnation.
The problem of perfectionism
Most people seek perfection in their lives as part of their self-improvement and goal setting. It is very normal and human to pursue ideals, and seek perfection, in those areas where you may believe you are imperfect or incomplete. Indeed for many people, the ideal of perfection is an enabling and empowering factor. It helps them set goals and grow. However, in some cases people go overboard in their pursuit of perfection as they act out of a compulsive feeling to deal with their low self-esteem or feel unduly disturbed by their weaknesses and imperfections.
Seeking perfection in everything you do, or having excess concern about your imperfections and weaknesses is an undesirable trait. Life is unpredictable. Even your most skillful actions may produce negative results against all expectations. From the Bhagavadgita we learn that it is better to perform your actions without any expectations and let God determine their outcome. It will not only free you from the burden of expectations and feelings of guilt, etc., but also help you focus on your performance and improve your effectiveness.
Many factors influence your notions of perfection and excellence, and why they are important to your progress and wellbeing. You begin to seek perfection early in your childhood, as you learn from your parents and others that you are not as perfect or bright as another person or a role model, whom they present to you as their ideal. From books, teachers, parents, friends, society you learn to fit into society by seeking the ideals which they represent.
The comparison with others also makes you competitive and adaptive to the standards and expectations of your family and society and win their approval. As you learn to adapt yourself in such a world of comparisons and critical evaluations, you seek perfection in what seem to enhance your life or abilities or earn recognition and acceptance. In many cultures, parents expect their children to achieve what they have failed to achieve and want their children to embody the values that society cherishes and upholds. The pursuit of such ideals creates in you high expectations, which may eventually culminate in positive or negative outcomes.
Appreciating and accepting the opposites
The point of this discussion is not to discourage you from pursuing your ideals or seek perfection, but to suggest that you must seek them without detesting their opposites. Your pursuit of ideals should not be motivated by your aversion for their opposites. This is the message. You cannot become a good person by hating bad people. The same holds true for every virtue and ideal in your life. You cannot bring true peace into your life or build your character, unless you make peace with all kinds of imperfections, weaknesses, and inconsistencies that you perceive in you and around you and remain undisturbed by them.
For example, you may seek abundance, but without despising poverty. You may practice cleanliness, order and discipline to your heart’s content, but if circumstances put you in a situation where they do not exist, you should remain peaceful and undisturbed. You must do the same with the imperfections in you. You should not be uncomfortable for being imperfect in any aspect of your behavior, consciousness, or personality. While you may seek success in every action you perform, you should not feel pained by any failures and setbacks that you may experience.
If you do not do it, you will subject yourself to cruel self-evaluations, and excessively critical behavior which impairs not only your health and mental peace but also your self-image and relationship with others. Your love for the ideals and the perfections you seek should not arise from your hatred for their opposites. It is a self-defeating approach, because when you are caught between your attraction for your ideals, and your aversion for their opposites, you will experience emotional highs and lows and may end up feeling defeated and dissatisfied.
The importance of sameness
How can you make peace with the imperfections and the opposites of what you cherish? For example, if you like people who are self-righteous, truthful, honest, charitable, etc., how can you avoid negative feelings, such as anger, fear, or aversion, when you meet someone who does not possess them? In other words how can you avoid labeling yourself, or others, in particular ways that may define your behavior or limit your thinking?
From study, observation and understanding, we learn that the best way to pursue any ideal in life is by cultivating tolerance and equanimity. Some people want to achieve success as a form of revenge to respond to those who might have caused them pain and suffering and humiliate them through their success. It may give you temporary satisfaction, but it is not why anyone should be successful. It may be counterproductive. Your pursuit of any ideal must be grounded in a positive purpose.
Hinduism suggests that equanimity or sameness (samatvam) is the best solution to deal with the opposites of life. It enables you to treat the dualities of life with grace and remain peaceful in response to both. By all means, it is one of the most transformative qualities having the power to prepare you for any situation or eventuality. All spiritual people, and yogis, cultivate it as part of their self-purification. It gives them the strength and the stability to practice renunciation and cultivate virtues such as detachment, impartiality, non-judgmental awareness, keen observation, mental clarity, discernment, magnanimity, compassion, nonviolence, truthfulness, peace, and balance. When you make peace with the imperfections that exist in you and around you, you make peace with yourself and others, and remain undisturbed by what happens to you, in you, or around you.
The imperfections of existence
What is common to the diversity in creation or to you, the world, universe, and Nature? They are all imperfect and incomplete in several aspects. We learn the same from our scriptures. All our divinities posses some weakness or the other, which makes them personal and distinctly endearing to the humanity. Their imperfections also trigger events that play a vital role in the continuation and transformation of things and worlds. Their presence is probably part of the design to bridge the gap between humans and gods so that they can have better rapport and closer interaction and cooperation.
It is also true with all other realities that are present in creation. Existence itself is a reality between the polarities of perfection and imperfection, or order and chaos. Hence, you find the same polarity in everything that represents it. Each and everything that manifests in the universe is a work in progress, and facilitates change and improvement in combination with others. Even if you think you have found a perfect person or a relationship in your life, in due course you will perceive some flaw or weakness in them, which often leads to feelings of disappointment, distrust, and betrayal.
Take for example any invention. When the iPod was invented, people thought it was the ultimate gadget for listening to music. Nowadays not many people prefer buying it because you have better gadgets that combine more functions. The same is true with any invention or discovery. Things are perfect until you find better ones. Things become increasingly imperfect as our knowledge and vision grow. The best athletes of today may be considered mediocre after a hundred years. What the best of the scholars of past civilizations used to know about the world in their lifetimes we now know in a few hours or days.
Our notions of perfection and imperfection are therefore mostly relative. The same is true with ideals. Ideals are the impossible things which humanity pursues relentlessly. They may help you find direction and purpose in your life, but you cannot take them literally because most of the ideals that you seek in your life are practically unachievable. You may achieve them partially, or mostly, but seldom completely. As goals, idealism and perfection are but the illusions, which you seek as part of your conditioning to fulfill your desires.
You pursue them to complement yourself, or add value and purpose to your life. It may be part of your desire for finding God, liberation, success, happiness, peace, stability, beauty, or any of the myriad things which you desire to enhance and perfect your life and character. They are all meant to improve your life or your character. However, in pursuing them you do not have any means, except your own discretion and judgment, to know whether you have reached the end or the desired level of perfection.
Nature itself is an imperfect mechanism. She took billions of years to produce intelligent life forms upon earth. If it was a perfect mechanism, it would have produced them instantly and it would not have groped in the darkness for so long. So is the case with the universe. It is perfect in many aspects where order, symmetry, and regularity are clearly visible. However, it is also imperfect in many other aspects. For example, 99% of space is empty or do not possess any life forms. It contains numerous, unstable, and asymmetrical objects, which can be technically classified as great cosmic failures.
In our solar system itself, you will find that most of the planets and moons are practically useless for the purposes of biological life. It does not make sense that you require so many lifeless and inhospitable planets to create and preserve life upon earth. In a perfect world you would have seen each planet having some distinction and value for life in general, and the humanity in particular, whereas in realty they form part of a vast, lifeless, and useless, cosmic, waste yard.
Gratitude for the imperfections
The point is not that such imperfections have no place in creation. They are probably part of the design. Imagine if you have to live in a house that is fully stacked with everything all the way up to the roof with no room to move? What can you do with such a house? Can you live in it? Perfection and completeness in themselves are great hindrances to any growth or change you wish to see in the world. It is good that our existence is a work in progress, because it gives you enough leg room to move around, and use your knowledge and wisdom to manifest the little world in which you want to live.
If the world is completely and utterly perfect, there would have been no scope for any improvement, and no need for preservation and destruction, or for the death and renewal of things and beings. Let us, therefore, be grateful for the imperfections and inequalities that exist in the world. It gives us the hope and reason to rejoice in the innumerable possibilities that we can wrought in the furnace of life. Because the whole existence is imperfect, we can hope for change and improvement. If everything is perfect, life would be meaningless. No one will feel the need or experience any desire to do anything or improve anything.
The wisdom of the sages
It is why wise people do not despise imperfections. They use them as the starting points for their own progress and self-transformation. Since they perceive them as part of the universal design, they accept them without judgment as part of God’s Will, and live in harmony with their own imperfections as well as with those of the world around them. In short they do not condemn an atheist as an enemy of God or turn away from a heresy because it contradicts what they believe to be true. With sameness that arises from their renunciation of attachments and polarities, they make peace with all that which common people generally despise, while not abandoning their effort to seek the ideals and perfections they cherish.
In truth, imperfection and incompleteness are the reason we are here, and why the universe exists. God the perfect Being creates an imperfect world that can exist only by the presence, absence, or combination of polarities and dualities. Our reality becomes possible only when something is present, or absent, or partially present or absent, somewhere between the extreme opposites of existence and nonexistence, light and darkness, perfection and imperfection, life and death, freedom and bondage, and order and chaos. They form the basis of your knowledge and perceptions.
You may pursue whatever that perfects you and complements you in such an impermanent and phenomenal world, but you cannot achieve stability and equanimity unless you make peace with the dualities and remain equal to them. The same holds true with your own imperfection and weaknesses. You may build your life and character within the space of opportunities that manifest in your life, but without torturing yourself by the weight of morality or the oppression of authority.
You should also extend the same attitude to the people in your life and the world around you. When you have peace within and without by embracing the dualities of life without hatred or resistance, and without passions and notions, you will have the strength to embrace life with the vision of a seer and the resolve of a dutiful warrior. In the silence of your heart and in the din of your life, you will become the quiet one (muni) who is endowed with the intelligence of an undisturbed mind (sthitaprajna), and the vision of Brahman.
May God bless and protect you
Seth Kelly Curtis