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Let’s change how we define perfect

By Amir Noir Soulkin, RVC Fellow, East African Community Services

I want you to do me a favor. Take a moment — and imagine what life would look like if you refused society’s nagging practice of forcing definitions onto you. It’s hard to do, right?

One of the greatest tricks societal expectations plays on us is that it “rigs” the “game” of life with false and diametrically opposing options:

  • We are either good or we are bad.
  • We are either moral or we are immoral.
  • We are perfect or we’re imperfect.

The ideal of perfection can be lofty, shallow and pretentious — and scarily unattainable, right? What do you think perfection means and how has it been mobilized in Western culture?

The shifting definitions of perfection

Abrahamic religions posit that perfection is attainable by subscription to and performance of religious tenets. Perfection is the transcendence of every “weakness” associated with humanity, corporeally formed. To be perfect is to be devoid of sickness, death, frailty, age, ignorance, hatred, and jealousy.

Secular, capitalist perfection is shown through financial abundance — expensive possessions, property ownership and lifestyles of excess. In many people’s minds, those who are rich are admired, fawned over. We say things like, “They have everything,” and, “I wonder what life would be like with such wealth,” and “I want to be like them when I get older.”

Think about the words people use to describe those who are poor: lazy, unlucky, sick, incompetent — persona non grata.

Now think about the words people use to describe those who are rich: cultured, clean, smart, sophisticated — the American Dream.

I see the push and pull struggle of self-perception every day as Communications and Development Manager at East African Community Services (EACS), a nonprofit that strengthens and develops the capacity of East African refugees in King County.

According to 2016 data from the City of Seattle, our county (King County) ranks sixth in the entire nation for number of people born in Africa. King County is in the top three for Ethiopia and Kenya. Somalis are the largest refugee group in Seattle.

Compared to other Seattle residents, the East African population here contend with issues such as income inequality, war trauma, and lack of educational access. According to the City report, based on American Community Survey data, only 8.6 percent of East Africans have a bachelor’s degree as their highest education level attained. Compare this to all other Seattle residents, of whom 33.8 percent obtained bachelor’s as their highest degree.

Is the American Dream only for perfect people?

Sendhil Mullainathan is a professor of economics at Harvard University, and he works on contemporary issues of poverty.

A study he examined was from the mid 1940s, at the end of WWII. At the time, 36 men at the University of Minnesota volunteered to starve themselves — their muscles atrophied, and their limbs were skeletal. What stuck out to Mullainathan, though, was the mental toll. The men, all of whom previously had no deep interest in food, reported thinking about food and only food. They reported that they did not have the capacity to think about anything else.

Mullainathan and his co-author, Eldar Shafir, offered this argument: Qualities that people assume are innate (for instance, going back to the example above about those who are poor being lazy and incompetent — or, to dress it up a little, they are impulsive, bad at school, and make poor financial decisions) are actually qualities that are a direct response to the pervasive feeling of scarcity. And the feeling of scarcity is all-consuming for people in poverty. This feeling takes over the entire mind.

In a 2015 interview with Harvard Magazine, Mullainathan said, “To put it bluntly, if I made you poor tomorrow, you’d probably start behaving in many of the same ways we associate with poor people.”

This brings up an interesting idea: Perfection is conditional, based on environment, community support or lack thereof, family situation, and so many other factors. Perfection is not binary at all. Any of us can phase in and out of perfection and imperfection, depending on the conditions of our lives.

So — we need to change how we qualify perfection.

What if we’re already perfect?

At EACS, our vision is to build up East African individuals, families, and our community. Our EACS programs have assisted hundreds of refugees, including students. I often look at the people all around me — and you know what I think?

I think they are perfect.

When you really think about it, the human being is an incredible feat in biomechanical construction that blends mind, body and spirit. Human beings are constantly evolving. Through the mastery of the mind, human beings discover new knowledges that can propel them to the stars. When we look at young children — with all of their quirks and idiosyncrasies, don’t we often describe them as perfect?

Isn’t it possible that the default condition of the human is perfect, which is to say, the only way he or she could be?

As you move forward with your day and even your week, please consider, these reflective questions:

  • How might reclaiming the word perfection remind you of your uniqueness and your personal genius?
  • What if you were already perfect? How would this impact how you navigate your world?
  • What if “mistakes” (also known as learning experiences) were a necessary part of your perfection?

Sit with this for a while. Contemplate its meaning. Talk with a friend. Really try to see yourself and others without the white noise of societal hang-ups we get saddled with.

Amir Noir Soulkin is a RVC Fellow who is currently working at East African Community Services as its Communications and Development Manager. 

Stacy Nguyen contributed to this piece.