Tuesday, November 14, 2017

 

Perfectionism, Despair and Meaning

The October 16, 2017 edition of The Wall Street Journal contains a book review by Emily Esfahani Smith entitled "Redefining a Well-Lived Life." Smith offers her take on Iddo Landau's Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World. Landau, a philosophy professor at Haifa University in Israel, seeks to understand why the rates for suicide, depression and alienation have been rising for quite some time. Smith notes that much research on this subject has concluded that despair is the primary reason that so many people decide that their lives are meaningless and she adds that Landau concludes that the issue is not so much that people's lives lack meaning but rather--in Smith's words--that people "have distorted ideas about what a meaningful life actually is."

Landau ticks off several arguments that are commonly made to prove that life is meaningless: (1) Nothing that we do individually matters because we are tiny specks in a vast universe; (2) We will be forgotten soon after we die; (3) Everything that we do and everything that we value will ultimately decay or be destroyed.

Landau asserts that the crucial flaw in each of these arguments is the idea that the only valuable life is a perfect one: "According to this presupposition, meaningful lives must include some perfection or excellence or some rare and difficult achievements." Smith powerfully amplifies this point: "Does the life of a child with Down syndrome have less value than the life of a healthy child? Is a retail clerk leading a less meaningful life than, say, Elon Musk? A perfectionist would have to say yes and yes. But Mr. Landau wisely points out that it's cruel to hold ourselves or others to this standard for meaning, because it neglects life's inherent worth."

In The Good Inclination and the Bad Inclination, I quoted David Holzel's take on perfectionism/trying to always do the right thing: "If one is overly righteous, one is likely to become suicidal." Perfectionism sounds noble but it can have pernicious effects on the mind and soul, because perfection is not attainable--and the fact that perfection is unttainable can easily transform a noble pursuit into a race toward oblivion.

I have always admired perfectionists and I have always strived for perfection but perfectionism seems to be a trap that leads not to excellence but to suffering. How does one ramp down the pursuit of perfection without sacrificing the competitive edge/edginess that seems to be necessary to achieve greatness? One point of view is that the world is not bifurcated into successes/failures but rather learners/nonlearners and that the value of new experiences is not defined by always winning but rather by always learning. For several years I have tried to embrace and embody this approach but it is not easy to tame the fires of perfectionism after they have been lit and after they have swelled to massive proportions. Kobe Bryant once declared that he was "not with" the idea of it is OK to fall short of your goals as long as you tried your best. I admire and identify with Bryant's determination and relentlessness but I wonder if this way of thinking is healthy.

My Mom has always emphasized to me that success is not defined by material goods or accomplishments but rather by service to others. During times when the vicissitudes of life have buffeted my mind and soul, she consistently told me that the path to healing involved focusing less on myself/my goals and more on helping others.

I see the wisdom in this way of reframing one's thinking but it is not so easy to rewire one's brain.

Smith's book review offers a simple conclusion that could have been written by my Mom: "Holding your child's hand, volunteering in your community, doing your job, appreciating the beauty around you--these are the wellsprings of meaning all of us can tap."

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