“Perfection is something you never actually attain, it’s only something you search for.”
— Thomas Keller
Many of you know Grace Peterson. For those of you who don’t, she is one of those few people in my life I admire. She embodies the idea of excelling at whatever she sets herself to: first piano, then ballroom dance. Who knows what will come next. (Though what may be her most natural gift might be teaching: I learned more from her in a single one-hour ballroom lesson than I had in four with a professional instructor.)
One thing that came out in one of our rambling conversations is just how readily she can recount her missteps. What seemed to be a perfect Viennese waltz to the casual observer was to her a minefield of errors, each one an opportunity for revision and improvement. It was just the same with a nocturne or sonata, in her case, or a chocolate cake in mine. There were shortcomings we saw in each of these offerings that were obscured to everyone else.
I think this is one thing that separates great artists – be they sculptors, pianists, or chefs – from the bad or mediocre: they are much more able to tell you about how they fell short of their vision. Every slip of the chisel, every misplaced articulation, even a quenelle with a rough edge, presents itself as a glaring example of a history of imperfection. (Not that this quality alone makes one great; but it does seem to be one entry on the litany of traits great people share.)The sociologist Charles Bosk uses the same metric to identify who will be the best surgeons:
I began to develop what I thought was an indicator of whether someone was going to be a good surgeon or not. It was a couple of simple questions: Have you ever made a mistake? And, if so, what was your worst mistake? The people who said, ‘Gee, I haven’t really had one,’ or, ‘I’ve had a couple of bad outcomes but they were due to things outside my control’–invariably those were the worst candidates. And the residents who said, ‘I make mistakes all the time. There was this horrible thing that happened just yesterday and here’s what it was.’ They were the best. They had the ability to rethink everything that they’d done and imagine how they might have done it differently.
You can see this attitude present itself in myriad other places, from Adrian Peterson’s belief he cost his team a game by not scoring a 94-yard touchdown run to this food blogger’s attempt to embrace her mistakes.
This is a difficult enough lesson to learn in its own right. But there is a harder one still: we cannot approach God until we abandon the idea that we can achieve perfection on our own. With our crafts, the honest understanding of our imperfections teaches us where to look in order to improve; in our spiritual walk, understanding our imperfections can only point us to Christ. As it says in Isaiah 57:15: “I dwell in the high and holy place, but also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” Is there a better way to create contrition than to understand that not only are we imperfect we can never make ourselves perfect? If I can never, of my own effort, do enough to reach the levels of Thomas Keller, how much less can I hope to touch the feet of Christ?