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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?
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?