While urging one of my students to stop procrastinating on her English assignment, I noted, “Better to give me something rather than nothing, even if it’s not perfect.” In response, the high school senior confided, “But this is what I think. If I can control the outcome, I might as well do all I can to make if perfect. Even if it takes a little longer.”
Right off, my radar for trouble zoomed in on the words, ‘control’ and ‘perfect’. Often set alongside each other, these words are in no sense synonyms, yet have somehow enmeshed as probable if, then outcomes in young minds when in fact, their definitions suggest the opposite. When these disconnected terms are pushed together as a pressuring narrative, students struggling in our hypercompetitive culture may be setting themselves up for deep frustration and failure from the start.
My student’s comment does not set forth a clear course for her achievement. We cannot simply pack concepts of ‘control’ and ‘perfect’ into the same mental frame. My student froze herself into inaction by grappling with non-synonymous concepts. It is nearly impossible to focus on the small-bore minutiae of redrafting, editing, starting from scratch (control), at the same time one has an eye on the non-tangible long-term outcome (perfection)—to do so is paralyzing, self-sabotaging.
At some point, this student had to consciously wipe out the illogical formula set up by her inner narrative—and then put more weight, more importance, to one concept than another. As she is a smart girl, she realized she could at best control her own actions, but perfection was anyone’s subjective game. She had to first suspend her knee-jerk emotional responses fired up by anxiety, and instead explore gradients of difference in these two words. Slice consciously at the differences in meaning, while at the same time find her comfort level working in the space in-between.
Indeed, the absurdity of achieving perfection by controlling one’s self or others is an American truism as old as our Constitution. Our Founding Fathers intentionally laid phrases into a governing document that would allow citizens of a new nation to breathe, regroup, reassess when needed; neither bend to a tyrant’s will nor control others while pursing their own ideas of excellence.
From the first, Founders set the word ‘more’ alongside the word ‘perfect’, creating an oxymoron in any logical sense. Of course, we cannot look for perfection to have a good, better, best quality or a less, more, most weight. Of course, the ideal of perfection is not something to be realized but only aspired to, by any imperfect human being.
And as imperfect humans living in a democracy, we can feel free enough to enjoy the joke laid into our most serious pronouncements on governing: this gentle reminder that we ought not to arrogantly claim our new nation as ‘more perfect’ than any that came before, but rather continually augment our efforts to settle this country even as we will fall short of perfection; understand others when they stumble as well.
More than two centuries on, how often do we return to that prompt and smile at its sensible counsel to not only be our best, but also remember to take a breath in the effort?
As proud stewards of a wholly-competitive culture, when have we allowed ourselves to move past thinking scores of 100-out-of-100 on the athletic field, on standardized achievement tests, in school and the workplace, provide the only hopes of ongoing success?
When have we considered ‘practice makes perfect’ may not actually deliver up what we desire? For I can’t draw that same line of achievement from ‘controlled prayer’ to ‘perfect prayer’. ‘Controlled brushstrokes’ to ‘perfect works of art’. Or ‘crowd control’ to ‘unanimous agreement’. Any of these word equations reveal the paucity of tying two words together with little understanding of insurable outcomes.
Conversely, I can appreciate specificity in our dialogues, and urge my students to consider their word choices whenever possible. When we do so, we may find that words that do not connect with logic in the same sentence nonetheless can do something else. Pushed together, they can augment the magical, immeasurable space in-between; make more time and awareness for a thought that’s not yet perfect. When reshuffled, words used in unthinking ways just moments before can offer us new and surprising perspectives.
While ostensibly engaged in an English lesson, my student and I were perhaps focusing on words in the same way a scientist will peer into a microscope. Under a lens, a researcher will chart microscopic elements to identify any distinctions, novelties, or patterns that might signal specimens have dissimilar properties but might nonetheless interact with each other.
Scientists will work to investigate any aspects that pronounce themselves as relevant to an initial hypothesis in order to disprove aspects of that hypothesis. That is, scientists don’t seek out agreement, but rather augmentation of their understanding. They don’t look for the safe, similar results that confirm biases, but instead welcome any evidence that challenges routine and expected assumptions.
To return to our conversation, I found it necessary to move my student’s statement out of its usual moorings and steer her to the antithetical nature of two words she used, ‘perfect’ and ‘control.’ I intentionally commandeered these words to dislodge her from her ownership of a safe, but numbing narrative. It was important to neutralize ‘perfect’ and ‘control’ as simply words to seek out in any dictionary, rather than as internalized taunts allowed to self- sabotage an overwhelmed student.
Cast into the invisible listening space between us, these words ‘perfect’ and ‘control’ could be safely held up, considered out of context, even juggled so that their uneven shape and weight would somehow become visibly distinct to my student in her mind’s eye. For I wished her to see the subjective values she had assigned to both words were faulty. ‘Perfect’ and ‘control’ seemingly claim no novelty or distinction or augmentation when coupled together. Indeed, when juggled hodge-podge around the same outcomes, each of these words tends to fall heavy on sweaty palms, yet in any firm grasp hold fast.