Perfection (noun): the condition, state or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects.
In one of my courses, the following question came up: “Does anyone know what the Latin phrase on the back of the dollar — E Pluribus Unum — means?” I am normally not one to answer questions in class, but I raised my hand up hesitantly anyway and offered the answer: “Out of many, one.” And then the professor said what was likely to be the death of me: “Wow, perfect Latin!”
That was when I got the cold sweats, because we all know that there are three Latin phrases on the back of the dollar bill and well shit, I thought I knew what they meant, but I didn’t know if they were perfect Latin translations, and I am apparently the girl who speaks perfect Latin. That’s me now. So I went home and downloaded a Latin textbook (this is not a joke) and tried to start learning Latin just in case he asked me about any other Latin phrases — because remember, I’m Perfect Latin Girl now.
And then I stop. Because about half-way down the page it says that there is no such thing as perfect grammar in Latin. You can basically arrange any of the words any way you want, and it still means essentially the same thing. I suppose I should be thankful. If there was such a thing as perfect Latin, I probably would’ve been found dead of exhaustion, trying to learn a dead language. Ah, the little hypothetical ironies of life!
You might say, “As funny as your tale of obsessive perfectionism is, isn’t it a bit pathetic?” Yes. Yes it is. But don’t you recognize something of yourself in it? Aren’t you guilty, to some degree, of something similar? We are all desperate to transcend ourselves, surpassing our current capabilities, to live up to some ethereal ideal we set up for ourselves. I didn’t want to just achieve perfection, I wanted to be perfect. I wanted to be “Perfect Latin Girl.” We all want to be extraordinary in some way.
It is, after all, sort of expected of us. There’s always this nagging sense of pressure, either from our family, our friends or from ourselves, to do better in school, in sports, in relationships, in jobs; to be the perfect student, the perfect athlete, the perfect partner, the perfect employee.
And when we look out into the future (a daunting prospect, not to be done more often than necessary), we find our reasons for the work we do today: to start a career, to make money, to do something exciting (or at the very least mildly interesting) with our lives. We feel confident in our resumes padded with extracurriculars, academic honors and examples of leadership and integrity.
But before we can pat ourselves on the back, someone always cuts in to remind us, “In the current job market, you’ll have to be irreplaceable to be employable.” Everyone has done the same thing as you have. How can you be special in a sea of other graduates who are just as intelligent, determined and “perfect” as you are? We are working hard for a degree that might not even guarantee us a paycheck. And they wonder why we disillusioned youths are sobbing tears of frustration into our textbooks (metaphorically or not).
If you’re feeling a bit down, sorry. But if it makes you feel any better, I myself am not extraordinary. I am not, as my tale very evidently presents, an expert in Latin. What I do know is that the word “perfection” is rooted in the Latin word perficere: “to complete.” I think this is where we go wrong when we think of what it means to be perfect. We can’t expect the achievement of the nebulous idea of perfection to complete us because we can’t be perfect all the time. We will always be flawed. Even experts have been known to be wrong some of the time. No matter who we are, we all have bad days. We all make mistakes. We all say shitty things that we will regret later (or other people will remember and take upon themselves to make us regret later).
So maybe while we’re stuck getting bogged down in our imperfections, we’re missing the point. Perhaps the perfection we’re really seeking is just the sense of peace we find in the net sum of our choices, good and bad. Maybe like Latin grammar, there are all sorts of different ways to get to the same, perfect place. We might just need to do a little rearranging.
As far as Elena Salcido is concerned: “Auribus teneo lupum.” Look it up.