The Problem of the “Perfect”

When I went in for a dental check-up and cleaning not long ago, my hygienist, “Christina,” told me her daughter had gotten married last spring, right around the time Steve and I had gotten engaged. Since she’d recently planned and carried out a wedding locally, I thought she might be a good resource for vendors, and she was eager to offer advice. In between bite-wing x-rays, I asked about planners and photographers, and she shared a couple of names. By the time she started telling me about her daughter’s venue and describing the day, I was tilted back in the chair, various instruments scraping and splooshing and polishing my teeth, a captive audience unable to speak.

Which was okay, because Christina had plenty to say.

She told me about her daughter’s wedding dress. When they found “the one,” it was a tiny bit over their budget, but she decided it was worth the couple hundred dollar splurge. Then they’d driven to Richmond and spent four times the amount of that splurge on alterations to ensure the dress was “perfect.” “The dress matters so much,” Christina said, as she handed me the suction. A bridal portrait of her daughter sat on a nearby shelf, and the dress was flattering. Still, interviewing multiple cleaners all over town, and stressing out the poor woman they’d selected so much she swore she hadn’t slept the night before she was to press it? It seemed a little extreme.

Then, Christina told me about her daughter’s wedding party, the bridesmaids’ dresses they’d chosen. “I was worried about one of my daughter’s attendants,” she said, lowering her voice confidentially. “You know, worried about her figure.”

I was glad my mouth was already open. What on earth?

“And she’s sort of this shy, quiet type, too, a librarian, so I was worried about whether she’d even have a good time,” she continued.

I blinked rapidly in defense of introverts everywhere.

“But—” Christina turned away to check the x-rays of my mouth splayed across the computer screen behind her. “Her dress looked lovely, and she was fine.” She descended on my mouth again. “In fact, she came up to me at the end of the wedding and said ‘This wedding has ruined all other weddings for me in the future—it was perfect.’ And that—” she paused and pointed the polisher at me “—is what your mother wants to hear.”

I’m thinking: after 45 years, my mother just wants to hear me say I do.

“It wasn’t perfect,” Christina added, a bit wistfully. “But, it was fun.”

Fun is good. Fun is great. It’s not a Broadway production competing for a Tony; it’s a wedding celebration. We say our vows, we have a party, everyone eats, drinks, dances until the shoes come off and the conga line rolls. Legal, fun, and done: those are my criteria.

Don’t get me wrong—I want the flowers to be exquisite, the wedding party to be radiant, my dress to float just-so as I descend the stairs against the backdrop of robin’s-egg-blue sky. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t pictured this or that moment, in this or that ideal way. But aspiring for everything to be “perfect”—a word Christina kept repeating, a standard she seemed to think attainable—is, in my experience, mostly a recipe for trouble.

Christina told me she’d dreamed for months about her daughter’s wedding day. She’d cried imagining that morning, how special sharing the preparations and getting ready together would be. “And then,” she said, “we just ended up fighting.” The plan was for her daughter to text her when she woke up, and mom would go in to snuggle her before they launched into the big day. “Well,” she said, shaking her head at the memory, “by the time she texted, I was already up and doing wedding stuff that had to be done. And somehow I missed the text.”

And that’s the problem of the perfect: too many, too high, too exacting expectations. Not to mention misplaced priorities in pursuit of it. What “wedding stuff” was more important than that snuggle? Then again, attempting to script that kind of “perfect” moment is usually unwise, because no matter what happens, it rarely matches the fantasy.

There is no such thing as “perfect,” not really. There are expectations, and people or events that meet those expectations—or don’t. We have a habit of calling whatever does meet (or exceed) our expectations “perfect”; what doesn’t is a disappointment. But “perfect” is an abstraction, a relative concept, a practical impossibility. “Perfect” is perception, not reality, and acting as if it is a clearly defined, achievable entity is more likely to lead to discontent than delight.

“I learned my lesson,” Christina reassured me—or maybe herself. Later that morning, when she and her daughter were at the salon together getting hair and makeup done, the wedding planner called with an issue. Christina took a deep breath and decided to let go of trying to make the day “perfect.” She referred the call to her husband and went back to enjoying the moment with her daughter.

I’m not sure my hygienist has fully overcome her perfectionist tendencies, but as a recovering perfectionist myself, I know it’s a tough addiction to crack. So whenever I start to worry about some little detail (What if we can’t get the right color daisies?) or some piece I can’t control (What if it’s pouring rain that day?), I remind myself that oftentimes the most memorable moments come from the minor mishaps and unexpected events, the things you couldn’t possibly have planned for but will never forget. I think back to how all the guests at my brother’s wedding were preparing to hum an impromptu wedding march in case the bagpiper, who was delayed, couldn’t make it in time. Or the moment when we realized we didn’t have rose petals readied for the flower girl, and my mother sat down with a basket in her lap and began to pluck petals. My brother knelt down in front of her, took a rose, and went to work.

As we were scheduling my future check-ups, Christina asked about my wedding date.

“September,” I said, happy to be sitting upright once again, my mouth appliance free.

She clicked through her online calendar. “Oh, good,” she said. “That’ll be shortly after a cleaning, so your teeth will look great for pictures.” She turned to me and smiled. “Perfect.”

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