In Praise of imPerfection

By Seán Mullan

(From the October - December 2017 issue of VOX.)


Have you met iPhone X yet? It’s Apple’s newest offering. By the way you must say “iPhone Ten” not “X.” So why the …? I know - let’s not go there! My reason for introducing the tech geniuses of Cupertino is to think about the underrated topic of imperfection.

Over the coming months millions of people will retire their well-designed fully functioning iPhone 7 and spend a lot of money to get their hands on the iPhone X. Why? Because of the longing for the better or, even, for the best. How can you resist a phone that can distinguish your pretty little face from the seven billion other faces on the planet?

Technology is an ongoing search for perfection. If everyone was happy to settle for adequate there would be no Apple, no iPhone and you would still be making calls on a Nokia with buttons and reading a paper newspaper. And it’s not just in technology that we search for perfection. Sports, business, fashion, music, food – each have their heroes who have made it closer to perfection than the rest of us. We put prices on their heads, pay them inordinate amounts of money, celebrate their success and dream of being like them. But in a perfection-hungry world, may I add a few lines in praise of imperfection?

What got me thinking was a funeral service I attended recently. The service was a celebration of a life well lived. When news of this man’s illness got out, dozens and dozens of people had written to him expressing thanks for the huge difference he had made in their lives. There were so many of these messages that they could not all be read out. What we heard was a line or two from just some of the messages; and even at that it was overwhelming. Several lines said simply “You saved my life.”

But what was also mentioned quite openly in the service was that this man was an alcoholic. Truth was that it was half a lifetime since he’d had a drink so it could justifiably have been passed over. But he clearly wanted it known. After decades of sobriety, a friend who had only met him recently told me that he introduced himself to her as an alcoholic.

It’s much harder to sit in judgement of others when you know your own imperfections well.

In the service, the accolades and the admission belonged together. Another phrase that came up again and again in the messages was “you never judged me.” His capacity for helping others in this manner hadn’t dropped from the sky. It was rooted in his knowledge of his own imperfections. It’s much harder to sit in judgement of others when you know your own imperfections well.

Leonard Cohen, who knew a thing or two about imperfection explained it in his poem/song called Anthem. The chorus goes:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything,
that’s how the light gets in.

We live in a world where the words “genius” and “flawed” fit easily together. Great people have great defects. Many artists suffer mental torment or illness or addiction or character flaws. What makes a Van Gogh painting so gripping if not the knowledge of the pain that produced such extraordinary work? It is beautiful but in some paintings the beauty screams. What would Vincent have painted if he’d had no pain? Would we have ever seen his work or ever known his name?

My son’s first attempt at stand-up comedy was at his mother’s sixtieth birthday party – you can imagine where he got most of his material! But the guests who heard him loved my wife more, not less, by the end of the evening. And I did too. In a society that is addicted to heroic perfection, to the new and most powerful and most efficient, we might benefit from a few more “crack parties” – celebrations of people’s flaws.

In a culture where “sin” is about the only unacceptable curse word and where focusing on your faults is seen as negative thinking, I join with the monk and poet Kilian McDonnell who writes:     

As certain as the rain will make you wet
Perfection will do you in

There’s always a better way but it’s not the way of perfectionism. Thank God for the cracks, and the light that comes through them.


Seán Mullan has been working in church leadership for many years. He has developed a project in Dublin City Centre called “Third Space”.