Perfect Is the Enemy

I have a hard time with imperfection. I think a lot of people do. For example, at our house, we have these fabric drawersthat we got to give a home to all of the miscellaneous stuff that was spreading over our kitchen and dining room. Maybe I can find a picture … yes, here we go. This is how those are supposed to look.

fabric drawer cube system

Ours are a little overflowing with materials we haven’t found time to put away, but they would make the whole area look more or less presentable except for the cats. To the cats, fabric drawers are not an organizational system: they are a scratching post. The drawers we got a year or 18 months ago look like they lost a fight with a cheese grater. I can’t tell you how much they cry out to be thrown away and replaced.

And yet … what’s really wrong with them? We don’t notice them on a day-to-day basis, although it’s true there’s probably a certain sense of disheveledness that lurks in the backs of our minds. No, really the main thing about them is that when people come into our house, they see them, and the drawers look kind of cruddy, which feels like it reflects badly on me. I imagine visitors have thoughts like

  • “Don’t these people care that those drawers look like crap?”
  • “Can’t they control their animals?”
  • “Do they even notice this, or do they live as blissfully ignorant pigs?”
  • “Are they so poor they can’t afford new fabric drawers?”
  • etc.

Replacing the drawers would be mainly for appearances, in other words. I do like things to look beautiful. I’d like things to look beautiful even if I knew no one else was ever going to see them. But I think that in middle income American homes like ours (probably even more so in high income homes) we share a sense that things should look nice, and that at best things that don’t look nice should only be kept around until we can afford replacements. It’s unremarkable for a college student to drive a beat-up, rusty-out car, but it’s unseemly for a 35-year-old or 45-year-old with a good income to do that, even if the car is comfortable and safe and gets terrific gas mileage. Appearances feel important.

Yet the difference between having decent, functional things and having things that look practically new is a huge one. If our family had money to burn and we really wanted our couch to look nice, we’d probably have to replace it every few years, between the cats and the kids. How much of our consumption is because we want to buy new, not used; or to replace the old, working thing with a newer, better one; or to rebuy rather than repair? How much is because we don’t want to be seem dragging a scratched-up old wardrobe out of a recycle store instead of getting a nice-looking new one at Ikea or Ethan Allen?

This is the bottom line on looking perfect: If I’m really committed to fighting climate change, I’m going to need to be increasingly willing to let things be a little frayed, worn, scratched, or outdated. I’m going to need to get over feeling like people are judging me a failure if my car or my clothes or my house doesn’t look shiny and recent. And I think I’m going to have to be not only comfortable with this imperfect, aging, blemished stuff, but also to be a proponent for it. This is hard, because following the social norms is a way to get along more easily with people, to make interactions smoother, to make people feel more comfortable or more confident about us. We don’t want people to question our abilities or intelligence, to undervalue us. Yet if we drive ugly cars and wear threadbare clothing, they will.

Society as a whole isn’t going to change rapidly unless or until utter disaster strikes, so I don’t expect living shabby will get easier in terms of how other people react–not any time soon. What we’re left with, I think, is making it comfortable from the inside. Our emotional imperfections, at least, we can afford to replace.