Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Perfect 9.999

When I was a kid, Nadia Comaneci amazed the world when the judges gave her gymnastic performances seven perfect scores at the 1976 summer Olympics, introducing the phrase "perfect ten" into the English vernacular.

Even as a kid, I saw that, even though she did something really amazing, it still wasn't perfect. Thirty years later, I still haven't seen anything perfect. Perfection just isn't possible in anything human.

At the 1980 Olympics, there was a huge amount of pressure on the then seventeen year old Comaneci because of the "perfect" scores she received four years before. Although considerably stronger, her longer and heavier seventeen year old body just couldn't do what her thirteen year old body could, and even though she still won two gold and two silver medals she didn't get even one perfect so, before the eyes of the world, she was labeled a failure.

I'll never forget the look on her face when she failed to plant her landing on a tumbling run in the floor exercise. She knew the world wanted her perfect and she wanted it for herself, but in that moment she hit the impenetrable wall of human limitations and you could tell it really, really hurt her.

Sports is and should be an area where it's obvious perfection isn't possible, where there's always a way to do it a little better, yet you see the word "perfect" used a lot in sports from the "pefect pitch" in baseball to the "hat trick" in hockey. There's even a "perfect score" in bowling.

I think we cling to this idea of human perfection because it gives us a sense of security in an imperfect world. If we could just put our hands one something perfect, then it might give us a way to recalibrate all the imperfect things and put the world in a better order.

We might as well chase fairies though, because perfection simply can't exist. Ironically, sometimes the people who get the closest to this impossible goal suffer the most because nothing in their life seems to really amount to much after that.

After the 1980 Olympics, Comaneci defected from her native Romania. The press hounded her and reported everything from eating disorders to drug and sex addictions, none of which was true, but the human mob turned on her because she was no longer "perfect".

I think it's better if we accept and constantly remind ourselves that perfection is just a concept and although we should always reach for it, we can never actually grasp it, and that's OK because it was never attainable in the first place.

Probably my favorite quote about the human condition comes from Robert Browning:
"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

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