Like several of my friends, I have always striven for perfection and thought that the term "perfectionist" was a compliment. In recent years, I have learned the folly of this approach to life.
To be the best I can be in everything I do, from teaching and writing to husbanding, is different from the futile quest for perfection. In my twenties, I tried to look perfect, combing my hair with great precision so that every strand was in place, making sure my tie was just right, that I said the right thing at parties, and all the rest.
With the passage of time, I have thawed out: I was once frozen in a steretype of perfectionism that would have driven me crazy, had I continued to pursue that path. I have a neighbor who freaks out if a leaf or smudge mars his perfectly waxed car. This is borderline madness. I have seen parents push their kids to get nothing but A's on their report card, who settle for nothing less than first place in any competition. What does such pressure do to these kids growing up?
Be the best you can be, I want to tell them, without going to extremes. After all, nothing is life is perfect. We have to accept unfinished symphonies as part of human existence, as Karl Rahner once said. Happiness is always limited.
Ron Rolheiser has written widely (and well) on this topic: we tend to romanticize happiness, thinking of it, searching for it as the lack of tension and the ultimate in pleasure. But disappointments and frustrations are always near, ready to intrude on this impossible ideal.
What we should seek, says Rolheiser, is meaning, not happiness. "Meaning is what constitutes happiness and meaning isn't contingent upon pain and tension being absent from our lives." (from his blog of 6-12: www.ronrolheiser.com)
The mature person, it seems to me, puts aside false, superficial notions of perfection as well as unrealistic ideas of happiness, seeking meaning in his or her job, family, religion, soul. This implies that the "good life" is reflective, with goals that are ever changing, as life itself changes.
We are on an unfolding journey not toward perfection or happiness (at least in this life) but toward understanding ourselves and others and achieving the wisdom to cope with life's many imperfections.