by Troy Chapman
I don’t keep a very clean house. The ledge at the foot of my bed is piled up with things that I’ve tossed there randomly. Sunglasses, a bag of cough drops, pencils, erasers, tapes, unanswered letters, a pocket copy of Gideon’s New Testament. My locker’s in the same disarray. I also can’t manage to keep up with all the projects I have going. My cell is cluttered with half-finished book outlines, articles, paintings and scraps of paper with original but forever unsung song lyrics jotted on them.
The inside of my head looks the same. With dreams and plans and projects scattered about, some abandoned intentionally, others just accidentally misplaced. There’s a stack of intentions to write more letters and keep in better touch with family and friends. One whole room is filled with dreams of writing books and sending more articles out for publication. Another is piled high with ideas for straightening out all of the above.
That’s the “solution room,” and I can look at it now and smile. But there was a time when I took it very seriously, a time when I believed unquestioningly in solutions. I’ve since come to see that at least half my problems were caused by this very belief. I was frustrated and angry about not being able to find and work these solutions in my life. I didn’t have a very high opinion of myself because when I looked all I saw were my failures. My way of dealing with this was to project it out onto others. Of course, no one else lived up to my expectations, so I was angry and frustrated with people most of the time. I believed in punishment and took pleasure in seeing people “get their due.”
I find this same dynamic to be a strong current in our culture and I think that goes back to the same root: a belief in solutions. Our bulging prison system and our wars are monuments to this belief. So is the fact that we often elect authoritarian leaders who talk more like stern parents dealing with bratty kids than statesmen leading a nation of free people. Their disciplinarian talk and promises to straighten out the world appeal to us.
The same belief is running through our religions and has led to the concept of God as a cross between the ultimate problem solver and the ultimate disciplinarian.
The whole idea of solution — and all the anger and frustration that comes from it — is of course rooted in another belief: the belief that the world is supposed to be perfect. This belief almost destroyed me before I finally let it go and I’m convinced it will destroy us collectively if we don’t abandon it.
One reason we cling to it is that we believe the only alternative is to go fatalist and just passively accept everything. If that were the only alternative, I would probably go back to my war on the world because even war is preferable to spiritual passivity. But it’s not the only alternative. We can accept that the world isn’t perfect and still not throw our hands up in apathy and despair if we realize that movement toward perfection isn’t the only kind of progress out there. There’s another, much saner kind of progress and that is movement toward being more loving and human in an imperfect world. But commitment to this kind of progress demands an abandonment of the notion that the world is broken and needs to be fixed.
Awhile back we had a big discussion about this in our church under the heading of A Call to Holiness. And I saw that whole belief in perfection and solutions come to the fore. For some people holiness is synonymous with perfection, but for me it’s more about how we conduct ourselves in the face of imperfection than it is about becoming perfect. Holiness is about learning to love through imperfection — our own and that of others — not about fixing or straightening things out.
Imperfection is water and the point of life is to learn to swim and maybe even enjoy it a little. The belief in perfection blinds us to this point. It tells us that the point is just to get across the pond — preferably without getting wet. So we respond to our inability to swim by trying to drain the pond. Yet the more we try to drain it, the more water seeps up from the ground. So what now? Some people say, “Bring in the cement truck and turn the pond into a nice, dry parking lot. And if that doesn’t work, bring in the dynamite or the atomic bomb, by God.” I used to think that way until it occurred to me, “For God’s sake, just learn to swim.”
I believe that, to be a light in the world, we have to reach this point of understanding that imperfection isn’t going away — there’s no solution to it. It’s at this point that we shift focus to ourselves and understand that we’re responsible for trying to live, love and be happy in the world just as it is now. We can abandon our thinking that the world must be perfect before we can be happy or that people must be perfect before we can love them.
I’m learning to accept this about myself as well. I’m probably going to die with cluttered shelves and a cluttered mind and a million projects started and abandoned and a million other character flaws stubbornly hanging on to me like burrs on a dog’s coat. Sometimes this still bothers me, so I tell myself at least once a day: “There is no solution.” And in one of life’s lovely paradoxes, the moment I truly abandon the belief in solutions I become one — for myself and for the world.
Painting by Troy Chapman