In his book, “The Heart of Man,” Erich Fromm wrote about two modes of being – one he called biophilia (the love of life and living things) and the other he called necrophilia (a love of order, control, and, ultimately of death).
Fromm was very much affected by the experience of Nazi Germany. And much of his understanding of the devotion to achieving perfection was based on Nazi Germany’s preoccupation with achieving a physical ideal of perfection. The perfect body and the perfect mind were felt to be the attributes of those with “pure” Aryan blood.
Fromm correctly linked this desire to achieve a predefined physical “perfection” to necrophilia (the casual way that Nazi’s were comfortable getting rid of those who were not perfect), sadism, and a preoccupation with machines as opposed to living things.
It may seem like a big jump, but I think of Fromm’s two modes of being whenever I find myself trying to help a young woman who has fallen victim to an eating disorder, or to what is called “body dysmorphic disorder” (the preoccupation with small imperfections, out of all rational proportion to the true nature of those imperfections).
Is it a coincidence that those who become preoccupied with achieving thinness or reshaping their bodies in other ways are also quick to do things that ultimately risk their health – starvation nearly to death, the pursuit of disfiguring surgeries, etcetera? I think not. It is where the quest for this kind of perfection often leads.
It contrasts with the quest for life and liveliness: that search begins with an acceptance of “imperfection” – it recognizes that each body, and each mind, is different, and so the path to self-fulfillment must be different for each person. It also recognizes that self-fulfillment is always a process – there is no predetermined goal to be achieved – that is ongoing.
Also, the goal of the two approaches are different. One tries to reach an image of perfection, the other is based on love and relationship. And, of course, since relationships and love are messy, it is messy also.
Of course since the idea of being against love makes no sense, this pursuit of perfection is often framed as a path towards achieving a perfect love. In practice, however, the focus on thinness, or an image of physical perfection usually involves many activities that make being in a real relationship impossible.
Embracing imperfection is hard, especially after a lifetime of being exposed to images of perfect beauty, but it is an important step towards healthy living and loving.
Our colleague, Jasmine Teleki, got us interested in the works of Brene Brown and her very relevant book – The Gifts of Imperfection.