By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Aiming for perfection

Once upon a time, I wanted to be perfect. I wanted to be a perfect wife, a perfect mother, perfect daughter-in-law, perfect hostess.

I gave up on that after a time. But I wasted many hours trying. The goal of striving for perfection took endless time.

When an important social event came along — a big holiday party — I did much planning for it. Perhaps a new dress — endlessly shopped for. A planned hairdo. Proper jewelry. Even hose without runs.

Long before that party, I’d try on my festive garb and think I would look pretty nice for the big event. And then the night of the party, the dress that I thought perfect accented the “avoirdupois” at my waist. It was too tight through the hips. The color wasn’t really becoming. The jewelry looked tacky. I wore it all to the party, anyhow, but it was far from being perfect.

This striving for perfection went on. In time, I grew a bit wiser. I realized that perfection was not only virtually impossible to achieve but even if acquired, it was not assuredly permanent.

An important luncheon was on the calendar. That day, I thought, for once my hair was indeed as I wanted it to look — almost perfect. But the weather was blustery and rainy. To protect my almost-perfect hairdo, I wore a plastic bonnet and carried an umbrella. I stopped in the restroom at the restaurant to check the damage before making an appearance. All signs of perfection were gone. My limp hair was a mess.

I continued to learn about this goal of mine. Perfection was not only well-nigh impossible, but it was a subjective thing. I might view something as perfect, but someone else might not have that concept of it at all.

My friend Genevieve and I went shopping. I was looking for a bedroom lamp. After shopping several stores, I still hadn’t seen what I wanted. Then at the next store, I saw it. “Oh, Genevieve,” I said, “That’s the perfect lamp for my bedroom. It’ll go with my bedspread and draperies. Won’t this be just perfect?”

Genevieve didn’t react with enthusiasm. After a bit, she said hesitantly, “You know, Elaine, I don’t really think I’d like that in your bedroom at all. I wonder if it isn’t a little too heavy for your furniture.”

And so, I learned that day that perfection was also a judgmental thing. There is no unanimity about perfection.

Nevertheless, it was still on my mind.

One day, my neighbor brought me over a freshly cut, absolutely perfect rose. Not even the slightest blemish or insect nibble. Intense color, Every petal was perfect. I knew now there was indeed perfection out there in the world. But that perfection lasted only until the next day. And there was my perfect rose — wilted and faded, announcing to me that even if perfection was possible, it was not irrevocably permanent.

I perservered, although I was beginning to realize how fragile perfection was.

My friend Diane yearned to be a “perfect” housekeeper. She worked mightily at it. She told me one day of her efforts. She’d worked three days cleaning her kitchen — light fixtures to under the refrigerator. Her kitchen now gleamed. But suddenly, Diane remembered there was one drawer she had forgotten to clean. That spoiled it all for her.

Next came the realization that elusive perfection also had political ramifications. One day, I chanced to reread the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States — and I was reassured to note that our nation and all its people were seeking perfection, as per: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union ... .”

This striving for perfection surely was not hopeless if our entire nation was working for it.

But my euphoria was short lived when I came across a quote of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s — from his State of the Union message on Jan. 6, 1945. He said, “Perfectionism, no less than isolationism or imperialism or power politics, may obstruct the paths to international peace.” I was disappointed.

My dreams of perfection continued to be stalled with the realization next that perfection is not appreciated by everyone.

Pliny the Younger alerted me to that, with his long-ago observation: “His only fault is that he has no fault.” I remembered also what a friend once said about a mutual acquaintance: “Oh, she thinks she is so perfect,” as if that were quite objectionable.

But author James Lane Allen had a thought that was helpful. I couldn’t achieve perfection, but it was still good to keep working toward it. He wrote, “By degrees the comforting light of what you may actually do and be in an imperfect world will shine close to you and all around you, more and more. It is this that will lead you never to perfection, but always toward it.”

That helped, but then I knew I’d found the solution to all this when I read this passage of Walt Whitman’s:

“In this broad earth of ours,

Amid the measureless grossness and the slag,

Enclosed and safe within its central heart,

Nestles the seed perfection.”

And so, I shall not be too disconsolate about not obtaining perfection. With every effort, I can take comfort in the thought that I might, indeed, be getting a little closer — and that, after all, perfection might be there.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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