“I show him, the little slip of the snip. Right there! I’m pointing but it’s confusing because he’s holding the hand mirror up to the back of my head and I’m pointing at it through the mirror I’m staring into in front us…”
Cecil and I are breakfasting, both with our usual bowls of artisanal porridge and coffees. He’s telling me about the misadventures of his latest haircut.
“Right there, Wendell!” Cecil says, reliving the nightmare. “That’s shorn not a trim. And do you know what he says back to me, Barnaby?”
“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Can you believe that? My barber. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. So I said to him, This haircut’s far from being good, Wendell.”
“And yet you continue to go back to him,” I say, bemused, a bewildered amusement, you might say.
“For over forty years now,” Cecil confirms, if not proudly, devotedly.
A tired pun.
I am sure there are times when such aphorisms prove useful, maybe even serve as sage advice. ‘Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good’ (and its countless variations, dating back to the early 18th-century, at least, ignoring a similar sentiment in Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘striving to better, oft we mar what’s well’ or Aristotle’s Golden Mean). Probably not at a barbershop, though, or tattoo parlour.
Even as some sort of everyday article of faith. Should we never strive to be better, to do better, lest we overshoot the mark and crash and burn into a flaming heap of failure, incinerating whatever good it is we’ve managed to assemble in the process?
Or as the modern philosopher, Homer Simpson, told his daughter: ‘Trying is the first step to failing, Lisa’.
There is a vital difference between settling and acceptance, it seems to me. Settling, in the modern vernacular, denotes a certain lack of effort. A handing over of agency to the twists, turns and whims of fate. Whatever shall be shall. Que sera. Que sera.
Buildings settle. A midriff paunch settles in in middle age. Settling your differences or settling out of court, while active also suggests finality, a conclusion, an end to enmity. Laying down of arms. Done, done, done.
Acceptance signals an ongoing process. Accepting, say, conclusions, feels provisional, pending further information. A pause in the action that will undoubtedly resume in the future. Conditions accepted. For now. Conditions change.
Historically speaking (without the credentials of a historian, of course), ‘Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good’ spoke against radicalism, the word ‘perfect’ here being used as a locum for ‘extremism’. There’s a perfectly – but not perfect – reasonable solution to the problem at hand. Pushing for more, to the extreme, for perfection, threatens this perfectly reasonable solution, a solution, inference being, arrived at through the give-and-take of compromise.
Good ol’ common sense, in other words. Good ol’ common horse sense.
“It’s not as if anyone’s going to notice,” Cecil says. “With this old grey pate of mine. A bad haircut just goes with the territory, right? Doddery, disheveled old coot. Wouldn’t you say, Barnaby?”
Settling or acceptance?
“So are you suggesting your barber—”
“Wendell, your barber. Are you suggesting he simply cuts hair to type?”
Cecil doesn’t follow.
“Well, if you were younger, say, a business sort, where appearances were very, very important, vital even in terms of your success in the world of business, Wendell your barber would never make that kind of mistake on your hair. But you, as you are now, well, you get a shoddy haircut because that’s the image you project to the world?”
Cecil takes a slow moment to think about the scenario, nursing a spoonful of porridge as he does, not in any sort of objectionable, open-mouth way that frequently befalls those who have spent many of their more mature years living alone. Simply masticating on the thought.
“You know, Barnaby,” he says finally, “I’m not convinced Wendell puts that much thought into his haircuts to tell you the truth. Discernment and premeditation don’t seem to be part of his nature.”
Discernment and premeditation?
Two elements of a proper haircut, I’d say.
Rather than a rebuff of radicalism, these days ‘Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good’ is wielded more as weapon of mediocrity and the status quo. Why not ‘Don’t Rock the Boat’ while you’re at it? And who really, besides reality TV chefs, goes about demanding perfection in their life anyway? Certainly not the likes of Cecil. It has to be perfect is simply a secular prayer. Oh, it’s just perfect, the gracious response to another’s honest attempt to make you happy.
Perfection is a process, seldom a singular moment. Retrospect delivers up the ultimate verdict. Decision + contingency + time elapsed = Final results, final results always subject to change. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, to use another aphorism, its meaning fungible, depending, ironically, on the user’s intent. It seemed like a good idea at the time. And then life happened, as life tends to do. All bets now off.
You can ask for better without demanding perfection. Sometimes good enough is good enough, just not always. ‘Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good’ should be an end point instead of your opening gambit.
‘Shoot for the Moon!” Norman Vincent Peale exhorted. “Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars. The power of positive thinking. Suddenly, we’re in the reeds, the pole of pragmatism being offered to rescue you from the fetid, leech-filled waters.
“On the other hand, Barnaby,” Cecil says, spooning the last of his breakfast from the bowl, “This porridge is perfection!”
An imperfect perfection since what Cecil is eating isn’t porridge but risotto, as far as I’m concerned, as we’ve debated countless times before. “A beautiful mess!” he’s defended it as.
Beautiful is always possible. The mess is the colour palate we use to paint it.