Let not the perfect be the enemy of the good!

At this moment in my life I have the luxury of time. I spend a good deal of it worrying how I may best overcome the obstacles my nature presents in order that I may put my best self to use.

The other day over dinner with a friend, we challenged each other to name our own and each other’s basic flaws.

I have plenty to choose from, having lived a fairly long life in many and varied circumstance, and having had good opportunities to see the consequences of those flaws, but in the moment I forgot one flaw that has dogged me forever and is an obstacle in need of overcoming: I forever make the perfect the enemy of the good.

There is a heartbreaking Kenneth Patchen poem— “The Reason for Skylarks”—that touches on this sentiment. A giant is gathering children from a tree into a basket. The sense is that he is protecting them somehow. One falls from the tree and he cannot find her. Because he has lost one, he becomes enraged and shakes the rest of the children out of the tree onto the ground and tramples them into jelly, and he burns the basket with the children he has already gathered in it.

I have often, in consequential and inconsequential ways, done as that giant did: thrown away something because there was one thing not right about it. Or not moved somewhere because it is not the perfect place I see in my mind’s eye.


Here is that Kenneth Patchen poem:

It was nearly morning when the giant
Reached the tree of children.
Their faces shone like white apples
On the cold dark branches
And their dresses and little coats
Made sodden gestures in the wind.

He did not laugh or weep or stamp
His heavy feet. He set to work at once
Lifting them tenderly down
Into a straw basket which was fixed
By a golden strap to his shoulder.
Only one did he drop – a soft pretty child
Whose hair was the color of watered milk.
She fell into the long grass
And he could not find her
Though he searched until his fingers
Bled and the full light came.

He shook his fist at the sky and called
God a bitter name.

But no answer was made and the giant
Got down on his knees before the tree
And putting his hands about the trunk
Until all the children had fallen
Into the grass. Then he pranced and stamped
Them to jelly. And still he felt no peace.
He took his half-full basket and set it afire,
Holding it by the handle until
Everything had been burned. He saw now
Two men on steaming horses approaching
From the direction of the world
And taking a little silver flute
Out of his pocket he played tune
After tune until they came up to him.

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