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Going through old papers last week I found a cartoon showing a man in a messy room while explaining “I’m a perfectionist, but not a very good one.”

I love cartoons and stories that express so much in so few words, and I’ve thought about this particular one for several days. The cartoon character strives for perfection, feels frustrated by not achieving it, and is honest enough to admit it. Does that sound familiar?

Even as I smile at the cartoon’s humor and often see myself in that same situation, I wonder whether anyone can ever truly achieve perfection. After all, aren’t we imperfect creatures living in an imperfect world?

I suppose it all comes down to how we use the word “perfect.” If you plan a picnic lunch and then the weather turns to rain, has your day now become imperfect? If you try to build something and it falls apart, but then you learn a better way to do it, did the falling apart create a sign of imperfection?

Looking into the Baha’i writings for further insight, I discovered that the word “perfect” in its original language of either Persian or Arabic might also mean excellence, fullness, consummation, or maturity — depending on context. While I’m not claiming to be either a religious scholar or a linguist, I think these words suggest a broader, less literal use of the word “perfect.”

Let’s consider, for example, a musician who has created a song that uplifts our mood, energizes us to exercise, or inspires us to dance. Is that song “perfect”? If we only apply that description to music that expresses the epitome of musical compositions and goes beyond improvement or criticism, then probably not. But if we reflect on its effect and the excellent standard to which it was written, then yes: it is perfect in its own way.

In the Baha’i calendar one of the months is called “Perfection.” Since the months of that calendar are named for some of the attributes of God, surely no human can ever rise to that standard. But if I think about perfection in relative, human-scaled terms, without trying to compare us to a pure, absolute standard – unfathomable and belonging only to our Creator – then I realize that there is hope for us.

That being the case, how might we approach and perhaps even reach a human level of perfection? In the words of Abdu’l-Baha:

Man reacheth perfection through good deeds, voluntarily performed … voluntary sharing, the freely-chosen expending of one’s substance, leadeth to society’s comfort and peace. – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha

Elsewhere, Abdu’l-Baha wrote about the effort required to reach perfection, citing craftsmen in this example:

It behoveth the craftsmen of the world … to exert their highest endeavour and diligently pursue their professions so that their efforts may produce that which will manifest the greatest beauty and perfection before the eyes of all men. – Ibid.

If voluntary sharing and diligent efforts comprise two keys to perfection for individuals, what about our collective actions? How might they become perfect? The Baha’i teachings say: 

… when divers shades of thought, temperament and character are brought together, the beauty and glory of human perfection will be revealed and made manifest. – Ibid.

In my research within the Baha’i writings, I then wondered about the contribution toward perfection we can make by casting our thoughts to higher ideals and aligning ourselves through unity of thought and action. Whether thinking in terms of individual or collective action, what do we know about how to achieve this standard?

Success or failure, gain or loss, must, therefore, depend upon man’s own exertions. The more he striveth, the greater will be his progress. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah

So far I’ve focused mostly on outer deeds and physical work. But what about our inner selves, our character? Can that ever reach perfection? Baha’u’llah wrote:

Strain every nerve to acquire both inner and outer perfections, for the fruit of the human tree hath ever been and will ever be perfections both within and without. It is not desirable that a man be left without knowledge or skills, for he is then but a barren tree. Then, so much as capacity and capability allow, ye needs must deck the tree of being with fruits such as knowledge, wisdom, spiritual perception and eloquent speech. – Baha’u’llah, from a tablet translated from the Persian.

Studying the Baha’i writings helps me feel both encouraged and empowered. Yes, I will always be a fallible human, making mistakes and overlooking opportunities. Yet I am not defined by my shortcomings nor limited by my errors. Rather, I am capable of learning and growing. I can reach a level of excellence relative to my own capacities, and I can celebrate noble qualities in other people. What could be more perfect than that?

6 Comments

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  • Rahmat Costas
    Mar 27, 2020
    Thank you for this well written piece, Jaellayna. It is indeed through the persue of perfection that we achieve excellence. This article reminds me of a tablet of Abdul-Baha "... Do ye not look upon the beginning of the affairs; attach your hearts to the ends and results. The present period is like unto the sowing time. Undoubtedly it is impregnated with perils and difficulties, but in the future many a harvest shall be gathered and benefits and results will come apparent. When one considers the issue and the end, exhaustless joy and happiness will dawn".
    • Jaellayna Palmer
      Mar 27, 2020
      Thank you for this, Rahmat. The tablet you quoted is perfect (yes, perfect) in relationship to the current pandemic, too.
  • Janice Odell
    Mar 26, 2020
    This thoughtful piece brings hope to those of us who strive for that attribute of God, Perfection, while falling short - always. Jaellayna has a brilliant way of bringing us comfort and even humor in the midst of this ongoing endeavor. She has also brought forth new perspectives about our struggle for attainment.
    • Jaellayna Palmer
      Mar 27, 2020
      Thank you, Janice, for sharing these thoughts.
  • Mar 24, 2020
    I think of this when I watch our government leaders striving to pass laws that they consider perfect, refusing to compromise, and accomplishing nothing. "The best is the enemy of the good." - Voltaire
    • Jaellayna Palmer
      Mar 24, 2020
      Thanks for adding your thoughts, Daniel -- an example of how the standard of "perfection" is not easy to define nor easy to reach. How can the truth be found? Through true consultation, egos kept out of the way.