Constellation at MassMOCA

I associate the pandemic years with heightened awareness and training about how racism infiltrates, and often defines, our culture; the underbelly of white supremacy and capitalism. After George Floyd’s death, I spent many an evening in Zoom workshops and trainings, grappling with how we might order a more just and equitable world. The message was often difficult to swallow for a man who’s navigated the dominate culture pretty well, and benefited as a result. I came to appreciate how Zoom made it easier for me—accustomed to the take-charge stance often associated with white males—to lay low, listen more than speak, absorb the perspectives of voices that bloomed on a remote platform.

Power points, bullet points, listicles. The presentations often highlighted the injustices of white supremacist/capitalist systems, and then offered alternative ways to interact among ourselves. Antidotes to the status quo were often inspirational, usually utopian, sometimes naïve. But the ‘fundamental defects’ of our inequitable society were pretty much always cataloged in the same way. (For this essay, I reference the thirteen characteristics that Tema Okun outlines in her article, “White Supremacy Culture.”)

Some of these characteristics seem clear, and clearly problematic: Paternalism; Individualism; Power Hoarding; Progress defined as more and bigger; Quantity over Quality; Either/Or Thinking; and Fixation on one Right Way. Others are less obvious, but make sense with a deeper understanding: how our society thrives on creating an (often false) sense of Urgency; how it promotes Defensiveness; assumes a Right to Comfort; and fosters the illusion of Objectivity. I reach the limits of my ability to envision a new world if I must consider Worship of the Written Word as a societal fault: reliance on writing certainly favors people with a particular form of education, but do we really want a world that denies credence to either record-keeping or creative writing? Still, the most difficult of all Ms. Okun’s characteristics to embrace—the one she lists first—is Perfectionism.

What can be wrong for aiming for perfection? Perhaps even achieving it?

In Ms. Okun’s view, the pursuit of perfectionism makes us focus on what’s wrong, what needs to be fixed, rather that appreciate whatever portion of an endeavor may be satisfactory. It makes the output of our effort personal: you made a mistake and therefore you are a mistake. A culture of perfectionism turns us all into critics, often turning criticism upon ourselves, thus undermining our own esteem. The antidote would be a culture of appreciation, a culture where mistakes are learning opportunities rather than shaming opportunities.

What Ms. Okun aspires to: a more accommodating and appreciative culture is a worthy objective. However, I don’t see why she (and others) label the current state, ‘Perfectionism.’ I understand that the pursuit of perfection can be destructive—if it means trampling on others to reach the pinnacle. But the goal of perfection is a noble aim, and pursuing perfection has resulted in mankind’s most illustrative accomplishments. It is, in many ways, the brightest upside to human development: our desire to constantly strive; to be better; to be the best.

I recently watched a delightful and inspiring documentary, First Position, a serendipitous find from the local library that provided an evening of insight and joy. The film follows half dozen young ballet dancers in pursuit of a medal, or scholarship, at the Youth America Grand Prix in New York City. Ballet, like ski jumping, curling, or even football, is a pursuit of perfection that lies completely outside the realm of basic human subsistence. There is no practical, evolutionary advantage to exquisite jumping on pointe. And yet we love it, we aspire to it, and we laud those who achieve—dare I say—perfection in the act. The pain these six young dancers endure in chasing their personal glory illustrates the abundance of human spirit in a way that ‘woke’ curricula simply do not account.

It is easy to overlook the many good things that our current form of society provides. So many people are poor, disenfranchised, and prejudiced against, we forget that never in the history of the world have so many lived so well. True, we do it at the expense of our planet, and we need to address that. True, we do it at the expense of our fellow man, and we need to address that. But let’s be careful what we wish for. As I sat through hours of education about what a utopian world might be like, I often found myself envisioning a bowl of oatmeal: adequate sustenance that lacked texture or flavor. We don’t seek a just world in which everyone settles into the mean. We seek a just world where human excellence is celebrated, in many more forms than we currently value.

I find it odd—and wrong— to condemn the reach for perfection as another insatiable anxiety foisted upon humanity by a capitalist system hellbent on creating constant hunger. I think it is much more than that. It is the ultimate expression of humanity at its best.

About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog,, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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