Accepting Imperfection vs. Complacency

I’m going to be 54 years old this year and, in addition to the physical differences between my body now and my body 35 years ago, I see things differently now than I did then.

At 20 and even 30, many more things were black and white or all or nothing for me than they are now. At 30, one of the major reasons I gave up being a Tibetan Buddhist nun was my inability to keep all 36 vows purely – if I couldn’t do it perfectly, in my view I couldn’t do it at all. (When I told my root teacher that I had to give back my vows because I lacked total renunciation, I wasn’t consoled by his laughingly telling me that no one else did either.)

I think moving to the understanding that less-than-perfect efforts are worthwhile, and that less-than-perfect does not mean failure, is an important part of growth. The advice, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” is sage. But there is a danger that we move too far in the direction of asking for too little effort on our parts – in areas big and small.

One simple example. Industrial agricultural practices do harm to the environment, are dangerous to health and cruel to animals. If I were going to be perfectly consistent in my objection to those practices I would buy nothing that isn’t organic, would never eat meat, wouldn’t buy certain nonfood products. And maybe I’d have to turn my garden into a permaculture design that better mimics the natural ecosystem of Minnesota. (It was my reaction to reading a column about more sustainable agricultural on a small scale that prompted this post, although I’m also her continuing the theme I sounded in my posts of yesterday and the day before.)

I don’t do that. I do have a CSA share in a local farm from which I get weekly vegetable deliveries. And I do shop regularly at our co-op, where I purchase organic and fair trade goods. But we do sometimes eat meat (there are only so many days my husband is willing to go without any meat), although I try to get it from a local farm. And I do but some produce occasionally that is not organic. And our own vegetable garden, while organic, is not (except some herbs that come back every year) a regenerative one.

Does that mean my efforts are useless? That I should be labeled a hypocrite for objecting to industrial agricultural practices while not completely forsaking them? That unless I’m going to go all the way and do it perfectly I might just as well be honest and not do it at all?

I don’t think so – I think the imperfect efforts are worth it. They do have some positive effect and it is worth trying to engage in those efforts as well as possible.

But it is easy to become complacent and to be satisfied with too little effort. So it is important to monitor oneself and ask – am I doing as much as I can?

In the case of my example, the question is: Am I avoiding industrial agricultural produces as much as I can? But the areas in which we ask the question are many. I say I take seriously Jesus’ command to love the least of my brothers and sisters: Am I making sufficient effort to meet the needs of those in my community who are less well off than I am? I say I am committed to daily prayer: Am I devoting enough attention to God each day?

We don’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good and decide if we can’t do any of it well enough we shouldn’t do it at all. But, equally, we don’t want to fall into complacency and think anything we do is good enough. It is not always to find the right spot in between those.