Kids Corner


The Pursuit of Perfection:
Letters From Espanola





I remember in college when my Chinese history professor told us about a belief held by the ancient Chinese.

They thought that if a human being created something absolutely perfect, it would invoke the wrath of the gods, who would then destroy what the person had created. This belief caused artists to always include some tiny flaw in their works.

Chinese cities would have beautiful wooden entry gates, with ornate designs and intricate patterns. Even though to the naked eye these gates looked perfectly symmetrical, the artists always included a slight, difficult to find, flaw that would disrupt the symmetry and keep the gate from being absolutely perfect. Thereby protecting the art from jealous deities.

This story affected me so deeply that I decided to create my own asymmetrical flaw.

I got my left ear pierced in college. Just one ear - with a little gold stud. Nothing fancy. But by doing that, I gave myself permission to pursue perfection in my own life, knowing that no matter what I learned, or what I achieved, that flaw would always remind me I would never truly be perfect.

There is something in the human psyche that is both mesmerized by and afraid of perfection. This drive causes us to watch hours of sports during the Olympics, for example, hoping to witness those rare, few moments when the athleticism of the human form can express itself in its utmost power and precision.

It is why we go to basketball games. Why we appreciate great creative minds like Einstein or Stravinsky. Why we spend hours practicing a musical instrument, or developing our martial arts skills, or running, biking -- anything that allows us to further ourselves. To explore the edge of our own potential and, by definition, the human potential.

Yet, perfection also provokes fear.

To see something or someone in a moment of perfection can create insecurity and jealousy among the observers. Because automatically, perfection becomes a mirror.

"Why can't I do that?"

"Why can't I be that?"

And the all too common urge is to tear down the image, rather than look inward and face those questions directly. For some, it is easier to gloat when an athlete misses the mark. To feel superior and safe, rather than reach for that  excellence on one's own. Safer to make fun of an artist, to tease an intellectual, rather than attempt to define and refine one's own talent.

And so mediocrity becomes the currency of the day, enforced by a mob mentality where the law of averages keeps everyone on a fairly even playing field.

The pursuit of perfection belongs to those who can withstand the social burden of setting themselves apart, of being different or strange, until the talents have ripened to the point of inspiration. If those talents, in fact, have the destiny to ripen completely.

Is it any wonder the ancient Chinese included the flaw at the beginning? A homage to humility, a protection from hubris, a place for people to focus their attention and say, "This is where you messed up."

So why am I thinking about this these days?

For over eight years, I have been chipping away at an English translation of Sukhmani Sahib. And sometime before 2014 is done, I expect to complete the translation. I have worked on it a little bit every day for so many years now, that my sense of perspective has gotten lost.

When I read it, I can say it is the best I am capable of doing, but I have no idea if it is really any good at all. When I translate gurbani, I have a very detailed process that I work with. And the poetry goes through revision after revision after revision after revision until, to my own ear, nothing sounds out of place.

It is my own pursuit of perfection, though I know there are countless flaws in it. And I ask myself: really? Eight, nine years of your life? Are you crazy?

And the answer is yes. Yes I am crazy.

Because it has taken that many years for Sukhmani Sahib to sink into my brain and change me. Which is what has to happen for the translation to be complete. I am an artist lost in her own process. Aware of the grace and the gifts that translating has given me, but completely unsure whether the result will be useful. I keep imagining myself handing the final manuscript to Guru Arjan, and having to remain humbly unattached to whether He smiles at me or throws it away.

Because trying is trying. Striving is striving. And there is merit in that. But when you offer your best, when you give your best, when you have done your absolute best, that has to give you enough security so that you do not live or die depending on whether someone accepts you or rejects you, in the end.

Years ago, I finally took out that little gold stud and let my ear close back up.

There is a scar where the piercing used to be, so I know the purposeful asymmetrical flaw in my being is permanent.

Last week, the Universe sent me another reminder of this lesson. I had gotten my 15 year old car repainted with body work done, and the car now looked brand new. Gorgeous. Perfect.

One week later, someone keyed the car, and put a couple of small scratches in the paint job. One week of beauty before someone had to add the flaw. At first I was upset. But when I remembered that old Chinese story, I had to laugh.

The only wrath perfection provokes is the wrath of the gods within us who are too afraid to let that flawlessness shine.

March 25, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), March 25, 2014, 6:07 AM.

Strange, but this idea of not tempting fate by intentionally creating a flaw, is a universal sentiment common to all cultures. I came across some Bedouins in the desert a couple of miles away from the Egyptian pyramids, and in showing me the intricacies of the work on the rugs they were sitting on, having cups of chai, they also pointed out, with some pride, the subtle flaws in each of them. The kilims I picked up in a remote Tunisian oasis, each boasts a similar flaw. So do all of the Turkish rugs I own. As well as the Bokhara. In Punjab, women embroidering phulkaris for their trousseaus always made sure they inserted an aberration in the design, albeit well hidden. I have examined each of the ones I have inherited as heirlooms from my family and each has one. Finally, there's the custom in Punjab: when a mother is done grooming and dressing a daughter or son, the last thing she does before she lets the child go is to daub his/her forehead with an ever so slight smudge of soot-like soorma (antimony or collyrium powder). Why? By marking them as less than perfect, it kept evil eyes at bay. I discovered a few years ago that the same practice prevails amongst Persian mothers.

2: Sarvjit Singh (Massachusetts, USA), March 25, 2014, 8:36 AM.

Sher Singh ji: My two cents! I also had curiousity on the same subject of 'soorma', 'evil-eye', 'buri-nazar', etc. What I found was that this originated from the Greek and the Sumerian civilizations. Greek society still has the 'evil-eye' concept and they put an eye to watch or protect (kind of third eye) over their homes, buildings, etc. I could not find any co-relation in Indian or Punjabi culture (even though it is widely practiced in both). Perhaps it came from the Muslim invaders who received it from the Greco-Romans, because putting the soorma in the eyes is definitely a Greco-Roman practice. Even the Pompei exhibits had this tiny spatula used for putting antimony as a beauty spot on the face and eyelids.

3: Parminder Kaur (Raleigh, North Carolina, USA), March 25, 2014, 11:12 AM.

In Turkey they sell flat glass eyes in all sizes to wear on your clothes or hang on your door, to ward off evil!

4: Amardeep Mann (USA), March 26, 2014, 12:59 PM.

I am sure your translation will be effective. Look forward to it.

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Letters From Espanola"

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