On Perfection and Hell

I think a lot of people wake up every day striving for perfection – the perfect job, the perfect spouse, the perfect home, the perfect body, the perfect day. But what do we mean by that? What is perfection?

When we talk about perfection, the common ground we generally have is to think of a time and a life with no problems. Utopia, in essence. But perfection doesn’t mean a place with no wonder, no mystery; those are the very things that make perfection possible. So what we forget is that we’re in utopia already; a state without wonder, mystery, and longing isn’t perfection, it’s hell.

When I think about perfection, I don’t think about a particular state, but about the journey. Today isn’t perfect, but no day or object or person or concept ever will be. I find perfection along the way – in fond memories, in good friends, in great experiences. At the time, we rarely recognize these things as perfect, and in one classic sense, of course they aren’t. Everyone, everything is flawed. But experiencing joy despite the flaws – that’s perfection.

And that’s the paradox of perfection – we’re striving for something that we don’t really want, and that doesn’t really exist.

In between drafts of this post, I was walking through The Strand and picked up a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country. As usual, he captures things far more poignantly than most anyone else can:

When you get to my age, if you get to my age, and if you have reproduced, you will find yourself asking your own children, who are themselves middle-aged, “What is life all about?” … I put my big question about life to my son the pediatrician. Dr. Vonnegut said this to his doddering old dad: “Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

Yup.

Is Solitary Confinement “Cruel and Unusual”

After reading Atul Gawande’s essay in the New Yorker, I’m convinced that solitary confinement is cruel and unusual. It wrecks the psyche of many prisoners and leaves them unfit to ever fully reintegrate with society:

One of the paradoxes of solitary confinement is that, as starved as
people become for companionship, the experience typically leaves them
unfit for social interaction
. Once, Dellelo was allowed to have an
in-person meeting with his lawyer, and he simply couldn’t handle it.
After so many months in which his primary human contact had been an
occasional phone call or brief conversations with an inmate down the
tier, shouted through steel doors at the top of their lungs, he found
himself unable to carry on a face-to-face conversation. He had trouble
following both words and hand gestures and couldn’t generate them
himself. When he realized this, he succumbed to a full-blown panic
attack.

Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of
California at Santa Cruz, received rare permission to study a hundred
randomly selected inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax, and
noted a number of phenomena. First, after months or years of complete
isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate
behavior of any kind–to organize their own lives around activity and
purpose,” he writes. “Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair
often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop
behaving,” becoming essentially catatonic.

Second, almost ninety
per cent of these prisoners had difficulties with “irrational anger,”
compared with just three per cent of prisoners in the general
population. Haney attributed this to the extreme restriction, the
totality of control, and the extended absence of any opportunity for
happiness or joy. Many prisoners in solitary become consumed with
revenge fantasies.