A Defense of the 'Good-Enough'

A delightful essay by David Dudley in the New York Times, “The Mercury Class,” garnered my curiosity. About a particular series of cars, it pointed to the realm of the mind and the spirit, at least in my thoughts.

Dudley writes about his father’s strivings to become a full professor; when he reached that goal, he went from buying the Ford (a lunch pail car) to the slightly more prestigious Mercury--a vehicle that wasn’t a deluxe Lincoln Continental, but a modest award for his achievement. Last month Ford Motor Company announced then end of building Mercury cars, and Dudley wrote: “But let’s at least take a moment to wave farewell to the Vanilla class of Americans who once drove the cars--the modest strivers who aimed not for the best but for the good-enough."

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The “good enough”? Aren’t we taught to push for more, to strive for the best, even to practice in every endeavor the dictum that “anything worth doing is worth doing well”? Many who grew up around Vatican II experienced the tremendous push toward perfection in Catholicism. As a college teacher today, I note little evidence for scrupulosity in religion, but scruples and worry have morphed into a different arena--the search for the perfect college, internship, grade point average, or job. When I look at my students' resumes and see part-time jobs, sports, clubs, and volunteer activities of every stripe, I sometimes wonder, “how do they ever find time to think, to reflect?”

Shockingly, G. K. Chesterton dared to proclaim, “Anything worth doing is worth doing POORLY.” How can this be? His argument runs counter to everything we have been taught by our parents, teachers, schools and culture. We want our brain surgeon to be the best. We expect that our airline pilot graduated only after many others failed. We want our dentist to have been in the top fifth of the class. And we pray that someday soon, Fordham will edge out Nortre Dame as the best Catholic University in the United States. Of course, Chesterton encouraged seeking excellence where it is truly important, but he railed against the stifling perfectionism that keeps us from relaxing, trying new things and taking risks, or judging ourselves and others by tunnel-vision standards of perfectionism.

Cognitive psychologists, those who hope to change feelings by changing thoughts, include perfectionism as one of the great intellectual traps. In his book  “Feeling Good,” based on Aaron Beck’s cognitive psychology, David Burns, M.D. writes: “Perfection is the ultimate illusion. It simply doesn’t exist in the universe. There is no perfection. It’s really the world’s biggest con game, it promises riches and delivers misery. The harder you strive for perfection, the worse your disappointment will become because it’s only an abstraction, a concept that doesn’t fit reality. Everything can be improved if you look at it closely and critically enough--every person, every idea, every work of art, everything. So if you are a perfectionist, you are guaranteed to be a loser in whatever you do.”

These ideas are also explored in  "The Spirituality of Imperfection," a collection of essays about the Alcoholics Anonymous movement edited by Lawrence Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. The book illustrates how AA brings broken people together, and through a spirituality involving gratitude, humility, tolerance, and forgiveness learn not to be perfect but to become stronger in their broken places. (The Ignatian spirit is embedded in this 12-step movement, as one of the founders had a spiritual director who was a Jesuit priest. Kurtz, for his part, began studying the movement after a botched medical surgery left him only partially able to walk. “It’s ironic that I now walk like a drunk," he quipped.)

Do we aspire for Lincolns, or will a Mercury do? Have we taken risks, done something imperfectly, added something wonderful to our lives--later realizing this never would have occurred had we sought perfection? Can we comfortably and effectively allow ourselves to be good enough parents? Is the church a comfortable place for us because it is good enough but not perfect? An essay that begins with cars ends up being a reflection on how we view our own life and the lives of others. When I ask myself these questions, they sometimes lead to alarming or disconcerting answers, and perhaps they will for you, too.

William Van Ornum
 

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ed gleason
7 years 5 months ago
Good points.. As I aged my mantra became  'survive with dignity'
we vnornm
7 years 5 months ago
Ed,
 
I love that saying around Minnesota: when you ask, "how are you doing?", the response is sure to be "just getting by."
 
bill
Tom Maher
7 years 5 months ago
But people depend on other people. Part of being a community is that on your own, without being forced, one should contribute to society in a higher and most professional way possible. Others depend on the individuals performing their job at a high level of performance. We do not need to encourage indifference or shoddiness in our work contribution to society.

Catholic morality is way too self-inhibitiig and condemning of the self. The self is not encouraged to be expressed. Catholic perform ceribral exercises that negatively focused on discovering their faults rather than discoverig their talents. Individuals are not encouraged to develope their talents and find a job where their talents can be used at the highest possible level. Thinking of yourself is selfish and that is bad.

But people have talents and intellect that needs to be developed and expreseed through work and yes perfected. Talents ate a power of the self that needs to be developed to the highest standards and used. The expression of ones talents is self-rewarding and as American society evidences society materially benefits.

A lot of this is the Protestant work ethic where devloping yourself is a natural joy and then using your talents to contributes to society a duty. Work is good and is not a kind of punishment or spriritual distraction. One does not have to have a nervous breakdown in aiming for higher work standards. People have amazing capability to attain high standards over time with practice, effort and detremination. Youth espeicailly need to be encouraged to seek self excellance.

Catholics need to become more a part of the modern society and world and contribute to the community at a higher level.
we vnornm
7 years 5 months ago
Good points Tom.
 
I'm not encouraging shoddiness, laziness, or lack of performance.
 
I'm suggesting that we need to pick and choose those situations that we respond to with 100% laser-like performace. A neurosurgical residency is one of these. An engineer designing a bridge is another. An oil company designing an ocean rig is another.  Computers that time the crosswalks need precision. If there are still railroads with switches, you don't sleep at the switch.
 
The problem starts when we think EVERYTHING must be done at 100% perfection and start to obsess over the tiny details. When the neurosurgeon tries to spend 3 hours on the notes after surgery or the railroad switchperson decides the rusty tracks need polishing (all the while trains are approaching), a problem occurs.
 
More than a few students tell me they tear up a paper they are writing by hand if they misspell a word and have to make a cross-out. Or if their margin is 9 spaces instead of 10. This kind of perfectionism distracts one from the aim of what they are trying to do: express themselves.
 
Perhaps I am not being clear. Would you like a few more examples?
 
Can anyone else out there help me express this better?
 
Can anyone think of examples in life or in the Church where we lose the forest for the sake of th trees?
 
I am glad you brought this up, as at least I think it is an important topic in which there can be lots of confusion.  best, bill
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 5 months ago
I recently came across 2 reflections on prayer that not only challenged my sense of praying right, or the "perfect" prayer, but also questioned just who I thought was in charge of (and doing) the praying.  
 
One of these was from Richard Rohr's book, The Naked Now: "Prayer is something that happens to you (Romans 8:26-27), much more than anything you privately do."
The other was a poem by Robert Hudson I found in a 2004 issue of the magazine The Other Side:
Some prayers are like spears.  They carry the whole weight of the body behind them but they do not travel far. Some prayers are like arrows flying light and far and fast but they are never seen again. Some prayers are like snares scattered in the woods, ingenious and cunning - but who knows what they will catch?
No.  You cannot bring down the Holy One with prayer.  He is not caught in your traps.  Listen - you are yourself the hunted. Your prayer is the sudden stillness on the path, the in-drawn breath, the pounding heart as you scent the wind. Have you learned this?  Do you know? You do not seek so much as you are sought. You cannot pursue the Holy One - or if you do, it is only as the fish in the net pursues the fisherman.
(I hope the spaces get translated after I publish this)
 
I think that a lot of the drive to "be better" comes from a constant barrage from the media of famous, wealthy, successful, "beautiful" people.  How does my little life measure up?  It helps to know that we don't always have to be striving to be better than we are.  We are good enough.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 5 months ago
sorry, that spacing didn't come through at all ...
ed gleason
7 years 5 months ago
The question ought to be, who gave you the score card and what does it say par is.?society, parents, teachers/coaches.? your milieu, Church? getting older is a process of maturing your own ideas of par. I fear I hear too many 'shoulds' in Tom Maher's analysis. I regret passing on these 'should' to my now adult children. one of our more enjoyable  subjects is the revision of these shoulds. .
 
we vnornm
7 years 5 months ago
Beth,
 
I love those citations and the thoughts they convey.
 
I once read a book called The Cardinal-the priests in a large archdiocese made fun of one priest, Father Ned, because he couldn't handle all the responsibilities of a parish. Each day he was able to work for a few hours and he did this meeting the needs of people in his little parish, as his classmate, the cardinal archbishop, took great pride in all the ahievements around him.
 
It turns out Father Ned has been suffering the entire time from an illness that makes him weak and when this is discovered everyone realizes just how magnificent Father Ned's contributions are. The cardinal archbishop then seeks forgiveness from Father Ned, the biggest underachiever in the archdiocese.
 
It's a great movie, too.
 
best, bill
we vnornm
7 years 5 months ago
And Ed, let me point out that it is very hard for me to practice what I preach, even with the encouragement of getting older. bill
we vnornm
7 years 5 months ago
Beth,
 
You mentioned the "spacing"-yet the importance of this aspect of your comments pales when compared to their great meaningfulness and I'm sure the encouragement that will be felt by more than a few of us today. Better a million times to have sent it this way than fiddling with the %$**$# computer system.
7 years 5 months ago
Bill, your post is certainly apropos to our present times.  As Beth pointed out we are barraged by the media with "perfect" people that we could never hope to live up to (if we wanted to!!)  There is so much anger directed at our imperfect church.  I try to understand the basis of this.  There is an old saying:  we are angry at God for not giving us perfect parents.  Well, it is a bit dicomfiting to direct anger at our Deity, so are we directing it to his church?  We all grow up with inner ambivalences that effect our lives.  I was raised in Minnesota and incorporated the "just getting by"  and the Protestant Work Ethic.    My loving father was a perfectionist and my mother a fairly relaxed, tolerant person.  She often said, "no one is perfect" and we children knew she was referring to our dad and his restlessness and impatience. 
 
Life has a way of throwing curve balls  and it is sometimes a struggle not to strike out and give up.   But, Grace  often intervenes in our lives, often in mysterious, unexpected ways.  (Thank you, Beth, for the beautiful poem about our God who pursues us endlessly).    When I was married, my friends predicted that I, the Phi Beta Kappa, would have Rhodescholar children.  My children were both born with developmental/mental disabilities.  I was at first emotionally devastated.  But, loving my children more than anything on earth, I found the help I needed to give up the fantasied children and give the real ones the love and care they deserve.  About 30 yrs ago, this therapist talked to me about the "good enough mother". There had been a study done in England on "good enough mothers" who actually were doing a good parenting job!  I figured that I was a failure at Super Mom, and took the advice to heart.  For many yrs I've been a good enough mother.  Wouldn't ever win any "mother of the year" awards, that's for sure.  But, I think we are all happier in our "good enough" way.
Molly Roach
7 years 5 months ago
D.W. Winnicott was an English child psychiatrist who worked with the notion of "good enough" mothering.  He applied this to the process of mothering infants and made a strong case that "good enough" would win the day and perfect was not going to be in the cards.   Not with infants, those mysterious and emotional little powerhouses who don't yet speak the language and are communicating all the time nonetheless. "Good enough" may be a realistic approach to mystery and to all of those situations where we are not in control.
we vnornm
7 years 5 months ago
Janice,
I can't think of a better combination than "getting by" and the "Protestant Work Ethic" if one knows when each style is appropriate and when each are in balance. I don't understand all the anger toward the Church, either. There didn't seem to be as much when I was growing up. Perhaps this is something to speculate on here at later dates.
 
I for one can't imagine how hard it must be to raise two children with special needs. I think emotional problems can greatly magnify developmental disabilities, and vice versa.
 
I offer no magic to those "curve balls" and suspect you may have better thoughts on this than I. amdg, bill
we vnornm
7 years 5 months ago
Dear Molly,
 
Thank you for bringing Winnicott into the discussion. Much of psychology in the USA and Britain has turned toward the cognitive behavioral therapies but there is so much more to learn about how children form attachments with mothers, fathers, child care centers, grandparents, etc. I wonder if Winnicott ever wrote about day care and how that affects attachment with moms and dads. Thanks for expanding the discussion here. Somehow I think there is much more to be said here but it is late so I hope this good enough response is okay for now. amdg bill
7 years 5 months ago
Dear Molly,  Thank you for your reference to D.W. Winnicott.  After all these years I know now exactly where my therapist learned about the "good enough mother" and imparted that wisdom onto me.   Janice
7 years 5 months ago
"Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48)
 
... eek!  :)   Sometimes the knowledge of how not perfect I am is just crushing.  I like the poem Beth posted.  When I feel like my prayer life is going badly (almost always) my spiritual director has said similar things, including that I should relax, that maintenance of the relationship between God and me isn't all up to me.
 
Speaking of examples of people feelng they need to be perfect, I was reminded of those with body dysmorphic disorder who feel so unattractive they can barely leave their homes, much less be part of a community.
we vnornm
7 years 5 months ago
Crystal,
 
As I wrote my reflections I had Mt. 5:48 on my mind, but can't offer a good explanation for it. Perhaps a theologian or scripture scholar among us might have some good words.
 
Persons with anorexia nervosa also often have a perfectionism about their weight and appearance that is also a tremendous burden.
 
amdg, bill
Francis Perry Azah
7 years 5 months ago
“Meaning is something to discover rather than to invent”, says Viktor Frankl. We are all striving for “perfection” in life, trying to be perfect as our Great God is perfect. But in all, perfection can be ‘relative’. And as the adage goes, “knowledge is like a baobab tree and no one person would be able hold it alone; rather it needs a collective effort to get round it”. I believe everyone is ‘good enough’ in his or her own state in life. Everyone is unique; as such my perfection will be quite different from my neighbor’s perfection. Most often the media tries to lure us to behave like the ‘perfect people’ we see in adverts or in movies. Such attitudes work on humankind’s psyche and leads us to act contrary our own way of behaving, making us hypocrites. Man know yourself, and always try to be yourself!!!
Molly Roach
7 years 5 months ago
Perfect does not necessarily mean flawless.  It means complete.  This indicates that it's a daily enterprise that we are not going to be finished with in our life times.
we vnornm
7 years 5 months ago
thank you, all. bill amdg

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