Ever since I saw Tron: Legacy, I have been more aware of people’s search for perfection and the lengths they will go to achieve it. The desire to create a perfect system, and the impossibility of doing that, was one of the driving factors of the conflict in the plot of Tron. Maybe it’s also a seasonal thing: everyone always wants to have the perfect Christmas so it’s a theme you see popping up in a lot of television and movies that we see this time of year.
Or maybe it’s not. Maybe this is the tyranny of Martha Stewart rearing its ugly and perfectly sculpted head. For example, I caught the last ten minutes of a cooking show a few weeks ago where a chef was searching for the perfect Peking duck recipe that could be made at home. I was happy to see that he achieved his quest before the show ended because he kept failing to get a crispy skin of the right texture and flavor and everyone knows that Peking duck is all about the skin. The solution was simple too. It involved removing the skin from the duck and sewing it on to a rack and then smoking it in an oven for almost an hour. Simple, huh? Anyone can do that right? Even at my most adventurous and ambitious carnivorous period, I would never have attempted to reproduce this chef’s “solution” to making the perfect Peking duck at home. Seriously, how many people have ever thought to themselves, “If only I could sew this skin onto a rack and then smoke it using wood chips in my oven, it would be just right”? Personally, I would never get past the “sew the skin” part of the equation. But, hey, perfection is a demanding mistress so we do what we can.
I found myself doing something similar late at night on Christmas Eve. I had bought my wife a new printer so she could print photos from home instead of having to go to a store to have them printed. She’s old school when it comes to preserving memories and a photo in a book just feels more permanent than a bunch of ones and zeros stored on a disk. I can’t blame her since I’ve seen enough digital data disasters to be concerned about preserving our photos and movies. I found a great printer that I knew would do everything we needed and I couldn’t wait to see her open it in just a few hours. I wanted the wrapping on the gift to be as perfect as it could be. After all, this was a gift from the heart and I wanted the wrapping of said gift to reflect that. Before I go on with this story, I should add that I’m just not that good at wrapping boxes. I guess I missed the class on how to fold paper over a box and make it look good.
Anyway, I measured and carefully cut the paper managing to mangle it just a bit with the scissors. I had freed a sheet of wrapping paper from the tube! To thank me for freeing it, the paper kept trying to give me a hug. While I appreciate the affection, I just wanted it to lay flat. Was that asking too much? I didn’t think so, but it was. This paper kept rolling up every time I tried to make it go in a straight line. It just wanted to bend and curve where I wanted it straight and folded. After a bit of struggling and fighting I was able to get it wrapped around the box only to find out that the “measure twice and cut once” rule is a bunch of BS. There was a gap of about an inch between the start and end of the paper. I think this was the first time I actually started swearing. It wasn’t the last.
There wasn’t enough paper left on the tube to start over. I would have to improvise. I ended up cutting a strip of paper out that was a little bigger than the gap and carefully taped it over the gap. Then I realized the pattern on the strip was upside down in relation to the pattern on the paper around the box. Oops. The little Christmas trees were pointing toward me on the little strip while on the big sheet they were pointed away from me. This would never do. I started to remove the strip and that’s when the thin paper started to rip and tear. This was the second time I started to swear out loud. It’s a good thing I was in the basement.
I made the decision to forge ahead and try to keep the offending strip on the bottom of the gift so that it wouldn’t be visible while sitting under the tree. I only had one more step left in the battle of the wrapping paper: the sides of the box.
I’ll spare you the gory details here but needless to say, it wasn’t pretty. I believe this is where I finished my rum spiked egg nog in one gulp and threw myself back into battle with the fierceness of a mongoose fighting a cobra. Remember how I measured twice and cut once? I really didn’t think there should have been a gap in the paper and while picking the box up to get at the sides I realized that the paper had folded over on itself while I was wrapping the box and now I had an extra inch of paper on one side. It was an extra inch that was creased and ugly and totally out of place in the location it was. This is when I contemplated giving her the printer still in the giant yellow Best Buy bag. I realized this would be tacky and I couldn’t let a piece of paper beat me. I moved ahead with the cutting and the folding and the creasing and the taping and eventually, I had a box that looked like it had been wrapped by a bunch of hung over elves coming off a three day bender. It looked like shit. Once again I told the box and paper what I thought of it and then moved on to wrapping the special photo paper that I had gotten to go along with the printer.
I’d like to say that the smaller boxes of photo paper were easier to wrap but they just mimicked the mess I’d already made but on a smaller scale. Eventually, I brought three poorly wrapped boxes upstairs and wearily placed them under the tree.
The next morning my beautiful children, oblivious to my suffering and pain and struggle the previous night were kind enough to allow us to sleep in until 5:00 A.M. I think the neighbors were woken up by the sounds of their protests as they were told, under penalty of death, not to touch the gifts or disturb us again until 7:00 A.M. Eventually they accepted our bargain of being able to keep their gifts in exchange for letting us sleep another two hours and left to do hard time in their rooms.
7:00 A.M. came faster than we thought it would and the kids were in the room in time to watch the clock roll over to 7:01. Our time was up and the madness would now commence.
It was an amazing flurry of paper and ribbons and boxes and hugs and “thank you’s” and cats. The poor cats. They had no idea what was going on. The little still gets jittery every time he hears paper crinkling. As things began to die down, it was time for mom to open her gifts. She went over to her poorly wrapped big box and, without stopping to critique the wrapping paper or notice the creases or bad folds or bulges of paper in the corners, opened her gift and was overjoyed by it. The paper I had fought so hard with was nothing more than a crumpled up ball on the floor soon to be moved into a trash bag. The battle was over and I had won.
Other than how bad I suck at wrapping, what have we learned from this story? For me, I learned that perfection is another one of those illusions that we love to cling to. My desire for the perfectly wrapped box led me to behave in a way I’d never behave in public. It drove me to drink. My wife never noticed all the little imperfections that stood out to me because they were different than my mental image of what it should look like. To her, it was a wonderful gift that was thoughtful and perfect. See that word in the last sentence? She thought it was perfect. I couldn’t see the perfection of the gift because I was too fixated on the appearance of the wrapping paper. She focused on the gift itself and the thought that went into it. That was where the perfection was to be found.
The entire idea of perfection is an illusion. It’s a lie we tell ourselves is attainable. One of the major foundations of Western thought, the philosophy of Plato, is built upon the desire to obtain “the Platonic ideal” of perfection. We build our cultures, our society, our lives on top of these lives and then we cling to them as if they are the supports holding up the structure of our existence. I see and hear the idea of making something “perfect” every day. I’m seeing more and more how that is only laying the groundwork for further suffering.
Sitting in meditation, I begin to shatter the illusion of perfection and it becomes easier for me to accept the messiness of life. Real life can be ugly. Reality can be harsh. Reality is anything but perfect. And this is OK. Really, it is. Doing nothing in the face of demands for perfection is the appropriate response. Anything else will end in suffering as perfection is grasped at only to slip away. The next time you feel the need or the desire to be perfect, remember this. Accept the reality of the situation and set aside the desire to be perfect. I’m not saying don’t do your best at whatever you do: if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Just don’t get upset if the results fall short of your expectations. Release your expectations and take joy in what you have made or done. You’ll be better off in the long run and you will get more joy out of living life just as it is.
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