Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash

Staring at the impefection

Faced with information overload, we have no alternative but pattern-recognition.
Marshall McLuhan

If you are reading this post, you will probably have noticed there is a typo in the title (if you didn’t, there’s an ‘r’ missing in the last word). If you work with words, I bet you probably spotted it right away, and if you didn’t, well, you didn’t…

In actual fact, this idea for the post has been floating around in my head for an age — it’s a little bit of the small world big world dialectic thing — those persistent imperfections that capture our attention — the diamond in your windshield, the fly in the ointment, the black cat in the Matrix — the small glitches that reflect bigger problems.

Humans are remarkably gifted at spotting imperfection — it must be some kind of atavistic throwback to our hunter gatherer past. For example, for those who forage for mushrooms, there are a number of species that look like edible varieties and even taste delicious but are perfectly deadly. One small error of visual judgement in your picking and your bravura risotto al funghi becomes the last supper.

Our stereoscopic vision, which has evolved over millennia to focus on the tiniest detail up close also allows us to scan the horizon for threats — paying attention was a much higher stakes game than it is now in our highly regulated 21st century world. But visual cues are just one part of the present story.

The present world is increasingly governed by what I would call, imperfectionists: the people who derive smug satisfaction at pointing out other’s errors and immediately claiming the high ground — for example character assassinating somebody based on their typo’s in an online conversation or pointing out somebody’s physical flaws, or even their own and hating it.

And think about our obsession with beauty — where does it come from? I’ve understood it has a strong component built into our need to find healthy mates — markers like symmetry in the body indicating a disease free upbringing; greater height is linked to good nutrition and genetics; the hip to waist ratio in women and the hip to shoulder ratio in men as strong markers of fertility and strength. But make no mistake, biology aside, much of our present ideals about beauty are policed by a tight cadre of influencers and fanatics and narrowly watched.

It set me to wondering if we can rise above our slavery to our biology and perceived cultural norms. Certainly the escape velocity is tremendous but not impossible.

Marshall McLuhan, whose quote I decided to head this post with is a personal hero of mine because he was one of the keenest observers of modern society. And his observations, like the one I selected, just seem to become more relevant with every passing year.

If you read the quote from him, I think you will agree that our discombobulated attention spans — the result of the kaleidoscope fracturing of the media and too much information generally — force us to switch to a skimming mode of experienced reality — as McLuhan says, pattern recognition but not proper assimilation of the details. This is not a desirable state of affairs for the world either, any more than the obsession with details and flaws.

This has been further compacted by the disconnect in the remarkably strange year 2020 from regular workflows under lock down. For example, I feel liberated by the removal of the home-office-home lockstep but a good deal many other daily rituals have become untethered too and so attention tends to suffer.

But in those quiet moments, like this one as I write, and for others the small hours of the morning when you wake and you can hear the thrum of your blood in your ears against the pillow, the mind easily starts to cycle through the anomalies, glitches and imperfections that get overlooked.

I’m reminded of one of Oscar Wilde’s last quotes as he lay on his deathbed, undoubtedly processing the successes and failures of his life with death approaching, he said:

“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go.”

While researching the subject and knowing this is not a unique thought, I stumbled across another one of those gnomic concepts the Japanese are so renowned for — namely wabi-sabi. Of course, the term has deep poetic symbology attached to it, but for a cloth-eared Westerner, it could be broadly described as ‘embracing the imperfection’ or the ‘wisdom of imperfection’.

In their Zen-like contemplation of nature, the Japanese were able to see its perfection but also its impermanence wherein lies the imperfection. And extending that thinking outwards to all things material, including ourselves, they understood that beauty is a manifestation of imperfection.

So, as a message to all who feel the ten thousand imperfections of their lives with a sense of frustration, and indeed for all the imperfectionists pointing out the imperfections of others, I invite you to give pause and instead, savour the beauty instead — it doesn’t last, but then again, neither does wallpaper or any other imperfection.




Making piece with absurdity and cognitive dissonance

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