Something always seems to be missing, even if we can’t put our finger on it. It’s in our hard drive. We aren’t earning enough, we don’t have the right partner, we haven’t found our life purpose, we aren’t living in the right city or our nose isn’t straight enough.
So we meditate, we go into therapy, we take classes to improve our sex lives, we read books on how to follow our bliss. We may succeed in ironing out one wrinkle, but then another pops up in its place. The sense that life is not as good as it could be — that we are not as good as we could be — seems built into our genetic code.
It’s true, we’re not perfect. But then, neither is anyone else, however glowing their life may seem to our eyes. We are, all of us, no more and no less than wonderfully ordinary, imperfect mortals. So why not give ourselves a break? Why not celebrate our blemishes, our imperfections and dissatisfactions, as the very qualities that make us human? No one else has quite our mix of idiosyncrasies. We all have a fault line, and usually one with many branches. It will always be that way, as it always has. Even mighty Achilles had his heel. And doesn’t Venus de Milo look better without her arms?
When I allow myself simply to feel my longing for something that I don’t have — say, the summer in Paris — I realize that the energy in my dissatisfaction is nothing other than my own life energy rising in temperature; and as I let the intensity grow, I begin to feel more alive instead of breaking out in a rash of envy toward those who are already strolling along the Seine. What I’m wanting from Paris, or wherever it is, is not Paris — that’s only the image my desire comes dressed in. What I’m wanting is the very thing I already have, I realize: this warmth in my chest that my fantasy of Paris has spawned. If I let it, Paris can take me back to myself, and that is a genuine pleasure. This is what the old Sufi poet, Rumi, meant when he said, “This longing, You express is the return message.”
Our longings can serve to take us home, rather than keep us in a permanent state of dissatisfaction. And as for our various imperfections, as long as they do no harm to ourselves or to others, there is no reason to consider them anything less than our own unique contribution to global diversity. Instead of apologizing, we can choose to enjoy ourselves just as we are — no upgrades necessary.
Not being perfect allows us to feel empathy and compassion, not just for ourselves, but also, and especially, for others. We see our own frailties and shortcomings in our friends and lovers, or we see that they stumble in their own way just as we do in ours. Not being perfect together joins us in our humanity. That’s a good feeling; that we’re all in this impossible, crazy life together, and that in large measure it will take us where it wants to go. That may cause anxiety to our control needs, but it beats being lonely in a posture of having it all together when everyone around us seems to be less than capable.
In Japan there is an entire world view that appreciates the value of the imperfect, unfinished and faulty. It’s called Wabi Sabi, where the first term refers to something simple and unpretentious, and the second points to the beauty that comes with age. Wabi Sabi is the aesthetic view that underlies Japanese art forms like the tea ceremony, calligraphy and ceramics. It’s an aesthetic that sees beauty in the modest and humble, the irregular and earthy. It holds that beauty comes with the patina of age and in the changes that come with use. It lies in the cracks, the worn spots; in the green corrosion of bronze, the pattern of moss on a stone. The Japanese take pleasure in mistakes and imperfections.
Day by day, tiny specks of us float away. No matter which exercise or diet regimen we follow, no matter which self-help guru or meditation practice we follow, nothing will dispel the reality that we are not built to last. Death is our supreme limitation, the final proof that perfection was never meant to be part of the human experience. A hundred years from now, there will be all new people. Sooner rather than later, we shall not be here: no eyes, no nose, no ears, no tongue, no mind, no you or me — gone, and who knows where, if anywhere.
Yet knowing the extent of our limitations, feeling our soon-not-to-be-hereness in our bones, is the best condition we can have for waking up to the miracle that we are here at all. That is the brilliance of the human design plan — the built-in “defect” is the very thing that can spur us to drink down the full draught as it comes to us.
How did this happen? This incredible feeling, thinking, sensing, moving, joyous, painful, doubting, wondering life — what keeps it upright even now, right now in this unrepeatable moment that is already gone? No answer to that, merely the gasp of the breath as it moves in and out, and the pleasure of knowing that for now we are here and not elsewhere. Better to taste it now — this gritty, imperfect life that we have — than to defer it to some more perfect future that may never come.