My family spends Sundays at a packed Catholic church, where the pews are full. In such close quarters, the voices of the congregation seem louder to me than at other churches—not least of all during the Kyrie and Confiteor, two confessions of guilt and pleas for mercy. After Mass, we leave the parish and drive past a nearby landmark. It’s a large plywood billboard that reads in colorful letters, “YOU ARE PERFECT.” I call it the Wall of Lies.
I don’t criticize the Wall from an obsession with shame and regret, but from concern, because perfect is such an important word. Unless we understand what it means—or realize we don’t understand—we’ll keep digging ourselves into a pit, both linguistic and philosophical. If it takes a little sackcloths and ashes to protect that word, so be it. The Wall needs demolishing.
It should be easy to tear down, since all I need is one example of myself behaving imperfectly. By reviewing the last ten minutes, I have ample evidence. But when the wall says “YOU ARE PERFECT,” I don’t think it means “YOU ARE FAULTLESS.” And that’s the danger.
Perfect here seems to mean however you tend to be, or however you can’t help being, or however you want to be, as long as that’s not very different from how you are now. In effect, it doesn’t mean perfect at all—in the sense of being entirely without fault or defect, which is what it actually means, according to Webster, who is scowling at us from a neglected corner.
“Well,” says the Modern Perfect, shrugging at its definition in the dictionary. “That’s a little excessive.”
There are so many problems with the Wall and the Modern Perfect that we forget why walls were built throughout history. They were mostly put up for protection—and later on, people found them picturesque, used them for climbing or scribbling graffiti. But classically, they were built to keep people in or out. Fear laid many foundations, and the Wall of Lies works the same way.
So when the Wall says “YOU ARE PERFECT,” what is it guarding against?
You know the answer as well as I do. Of course we want to believe we’re flawless. We want to avoid the grip of conscience, the guilt of mistakes, the humiliation of errors, which send us into a spiral of regret whose pain I won’t deny. It hurts to know we’re not perfect—it hurts our pride, but it also hurts a better part of ourselves which hungers to be good and is starving. For many people, especially those who don’t believe in a merciful God, the idea of such a pain is unbearable. If we faced it full-on without hope of redemption, it would eat us alive.
That’s a lot to guard against.
It makes sense that in a society which increasingly prefers secularism, agnosticism, and atheism, we would wage war on the word perfect. If we’re imperfect and there’s no way to make us perfect, we either need to give up hope completely, or eliminate that terrible word. It’s the only way to save our so-called peace of mind. So, we seem to have decided that everyone is perfect—as in good enough, which is not the same thing. Good enough is a step on the way to better, which is a step on the way to best. And when we equate good enough with perfect, we throw away the entire journey, along with any fulfillment we might’ve found at the end of it.
When the Wall claims we’re perfect, it destroys our hope for happiness. What’s the sense of improving if we’re already the best we can be? The desire to improve goes hand-in-hand with the recognition that we’re not there yet. If we don’t believe we can be forgiven for our shortcomings, we can’t accept that recognition without seriously hurting ourselves. So we ignore it.
But for a world of perfect people, we do a lot to mess each other up.
Maybe instead of bringing perfection down to our level, we should reassess what we want. Do we truly want to believe that you and I, with our short tempers and harsh judgments, are the peak of the human experience? Or do we want someone to tell us the truth—that we’re not perfect—but say in the same breath, before the guilt consumes us, “I still love you”?
We have echoes of such a consolation. If we can peer over the Wall, we may find it.