Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.
(The better(perfect) is the enemy of the good.)-Voltaire
This quote popped up again and again in my mind today. In political debates about tax cuts and unemployment benefits (and I am making no political statement here, just observing), in dealing with my little girl who doesn’t want to eat her peas, discussing the challenges of keeping the fellowship hall floor clean; again and again, the debate of the perfect versus the good.
How do we decide when it is worth it to compromise and accept good, knowing the perfect is out there but at this point unattainable? When political debate and election results have shown that you just can’t do what you thought you might. While following the training program for the marathon exactly as the cyber coach tells you is ideal, sometimes life gets in the way and you are sore and tired and frankly your body says no. While it would be good to completely scrub the floor everyday that job takes too much time and a good old fashion sweep and mopping is ok and we will scrub once a month. While you wish your daughter would, after a 5 minute time out involving screaming and gnashing of teeth, come back to the table and eat the meal you prepared, perhaps her eating plain noodles and drinking her milk and not crying, is victory. The list goes on and on.
Voltaire was on to something here. Perhaps he foresaw the devastation of the French Revolution (even though it was inspired by much of his writing). He could imagine the destruction caused by those who clung so hard to their hopes and dreams of the “perfect” society that they wound up eliminating everyone around them who thought differently. He could see a downside to democracy in which entrenched positions prevented compromise and created the possible tyranny of a majority that ruled, seeking its own perfection, with no consideration for the opinions and beliefs of others. Or of small groups who, because they refused to acknowledge the needs of others, chose to disengage and seek perfection apart from the other.
As a disciple of Jesus and one who confesses that humanity is truly captive (or in bondage) to sin, I see real promise in this line of thinking. The perfect is unachievable this side of the resurrection. Yet we seek it so desperately to achieve it. We grasp so desperately for the perfect solution to our problems. We strive to have perfect jobs, families, and even hope to achieve a perfect “true Lutheran” church. We go forward in this, as if any of those were possible. Forgetting that the while we can hope for the perfect, the good is pretty worthwhile as well.
So does this mean anything goes? To quote a well known author, I say “By no means.” Saying the perfect shouldn’t eliminate the good, doesn’t mean that anything goes or that anything is good or even excellent. Yet excellence doesn’t mean perfection. Can we allow ourselves to not be paralyzed by the fact that we haven’t or can’t achieve the perfect? Can we create ways of discerning that focus on achieving what is helpful, useful, brings hope, serves those in need, gets us started on achieving a mission, keeps the facility running another day and be satisfied? It may not be the perfect master plan, but it certainly is better than nothing, right?
Well, certainly some do not think so. But in my experience in leadership, those who strive constantly for the perfect plan, the exact right answers to every solution, aren’t dealing with actual people and actual communities and they rarely get anything done.
We aren’t going to achieve the perfect, but is there value and excellence the good? Can we be excellent and not perfect? Certainly I am not the only one to have wondered this. For that same author I quoted before (not Voltaire) also wrote…
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Indeed, lets think on those things. A blessed Advent to you all.