Perfectionism & Scarcity
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I bought a new sweater and a new pair of pants. Nice quality, nothing gouache but nothing name-branded. Worn together, the outfit makes me look like a suburban mom at a community park. I blend right into an office complex. The barista at Starbucks correctly assumes that I am older than her, but not too much. The sweater neckline is not revealing. The pants are a sensible navy. It felt odd to spend so much money on two items of clothing, but it also felt better than buying ten cheap items that would inevitably shrink in the wash or tear apart beneath the armpit, or lose shape after a month of use. My new clothes, I reasoned, were at the very least not built in a sweatshop.
The day my items arrived, I folded them neatly and placed them on my bed. Later, my cat curled up next to them and I thought, "how cute." Seconds later, he stretched his front paws, his claws extending, and wound a thread of my brand new sweater into his tiny cat talon. The thread was only frayed a little, but I was aghast that my new, perfect items (items that were far nicer than any clothing I normally buy) were suddenly flawed. Salvador Dali said, "Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” Humans can never reach perfection and apparently, neither can sweaters.
It felt especially egregious to mar my new sweater because I don't normally buy new clothes, or nice clothes. Fashion is not my forte, but I also don't like spending money on blazers or heels or bags or pants. I just don't care that much, and I remember the not-so-distant past when my savings account faltered at less than $1,000. I remember making spreadsheets of all my expenses, none of them being altogether damning. I have no student debt, a small car payment, and less-than-luxury living quarters. And still, expenses have a way of piling up, rent and car payments being only the surface. Add in medical bills, insurance, gas, food, internet, electricity, and it's not surprising that my meager nonprofit salary didn't leave a lot of wiggle room.
If it sounds like I struggled, I didn't. Not in any huge way. I have always had enough, even if I didn't have extra. And I always picked up freelance gigs, or babysitting gigs, or dog walking gigs, to make up for my lack of a comfortable financial cushion. But being on a tight budget made me appreciate small things; an occasional latte from my local coffee shop, a thrift-store leather jacket that fit me just right, a camping trip where I ate rice and beans and slept under the stars. A free dresser someone left on the curb that I painted a cold, metallic blue.
I got so used to worrying about money that I didn't know when or how to stop. The thing about living with scarcity is that it doesn't just go away once you have enough. Perfectionism is the same way. If you pursue perfection long enough, with enough vigor and dedication, you not only won't achieve it, but you'll become addicted to the pursuit. Both situations are difficult to rectify and impossibly addicting.
I check my bank account and my investment accounts constantly. I pay my credit cards off almost instantly, and have nightmares about what I would do if I suddenly lost all my income streams or someone stole my credit card or I suddenly ended up homeless. I worry about money needlessly and contend with the impossibility of perfection tirelessly. If I only train harder, I think, I'll have the perfect race. If I only write more, and edit unapologetically, I'll write something perfect. Something worth existing. I suppose, at the bottom of both scarcity and perfection, is a fundamental need to justify existence. I have enough, see? I deserve to be here. Or, I'm good enough see, I deserve to be here, too.
Of course, there is no bottom to the endless wanting and no peak on the mountain of perfection. We are left to either contend with both or ignore them, although I'm not sure which is worse. Anne Lamott said, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you insane your whole life.” Just because I know and agree that perfectionism is both damning and nonexistent doesn't mean I can magically unwind the part of my brain that insist upon my own perfection.
My therapist once pointed to a crack in his ceiling and cited that crack as evidence that the world we created is inherently imperfect. Humans build roads and cities and societies that are broken and congested and unfair. If humans stopped existing tomorrow, the earth would eventually encroach on our roads and cities. The earth would consume us too, and not think twice about it. Although I saw his point, I didn't see how a crack on a ceiling would help me. "You have cracks, too," he told me, "but it doesn't mean you're any less functional or any less useful or any less good." He was right, I guess.
Just as a maniacal drive toward perfection is an ingredient to insanity, so is the maniacal drive toward financial growth. Not only is it impossible, but it might just be the best way to live unhappily. Seneca was alive a long time before technology and cryptocurrency and finance bros and billionaires, and Seneca said, “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor."