A few days ago, I happened to notice the cover of this month’s issue of Bon Appétit Magazine. Over a photograph of a woman in an impossibly clean apron presenting a platter of impossibly golden glazed turkey carvings at an impossibly immaculate kitchen counter – over this ostensibly natural but actually preposterous photograph – are written the words “The Perfect Thanksgiving.” And it occurred to me upon reading them that “perfect” might be my least favorite word in the English language.
You may already know that the word “oxymoron,” which is a figure of speech for the conjunction of two contradictory terms, is itself an oxymoron: the marriage of the Greek words “oxus,” meaning sharp, and “moros,” meaning dull. The adjective that I chose above to describe the Bon Appétit Thanksgiving photo – “preposterous” – is also inherently oxymoronic, fusing the opposed concepts of before (Latin “prae”) and after (Latin “posterus”).
I would argue that “perfect,” which combines the Latin words for entirely (“per”) and do (“facere”), is similarly oxymoronic, for nothing is ever entirely done. Yet how seriously we take this unserious word “perfect.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s allegory The Birth-mark tells the story of a scientist married to a woman who is perfect to him in every way except for the presence of a tiny discoloration on her skin, his unnatural attempts at the removal of which end in tragedy.
August of this year marked the passing of American Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, the narrator of whose debut novel, The Bluest Eye, assails physical beauty as one of “the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought,” a concept that “originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion.” Morrison’s character Pauline, who obsesses on physical appearance, “was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty.”
We should all strive to undo our “education in the movies,” to reject perfection as fantasy and embrace imperfection as truth. We should not seek our happiness in product but should find it in process. The French philosopher Albert Camus was intrigued by the myth of Sisyphus, a mortal who thought himself cleverer than the gods and was sentenced by them “to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight” to the plain below. The gods “had thought that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor,” but, as Camus concludes, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
In 1943, Albert Einstein responded to a letter from a Middle School student named Barbara Lee Wilson. “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics,” he wrote. “I can assure you mine are still greater.”
There is no such thing as perfection. Not in the classroom nor in the lab, not on the field nor on the stage nor on the court, not in the photograph nor on the canvas nor in the friendship, not in real life. Perfection is preposterous. There is only the work, and taking joy and pride and inspiration in the work. Our commitment at MICDS is not to be perfect. Our commitment is to do good work.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. May you and your families find good work and happiness together this weekend.
Head of School
(Adapted from my remarks at the Upper School Recognition Assembly on October 28.)