Imagine a sunset. Maybe the last sunset you have seen. Was it beautiful? What were the qualities that made it beautiful? The colors? The clouds? The sunset you are imagining is unique to you—no one else is imagining the same sunset. If everyone can recognize qualities that together form a sunset, and that together form a beautiful sunset, is there one of us who has seen the most “sunsetty” or the most perfect sunset?
Chewing through Stephen West’s “Philosophize This!” podcast, I was suddenly knee-deep in Plato’s Theory of Forms, in which he imagines a world separate from the human realm where the “perfect” forms exist. Only here does the “perfect” sunset exist, while the rest of our sunsets—as mind-blowing, romantic, or visually stimulating as we might think they are—are possible only from the soul’s knowledge of the perfect form’s existence and are subject to our human experience, therefore making them imperfect. Our sensory input and knowledge in the human world, according to Plato, comes from remembering experiences our souls have had in the realm of the perfect. As moral human beings, we are subject to the imperfect, unable to find the perfect anywhere, even if our souls are giving us secret intel on the realm of the perfect.
Without overanalyzing Plato’s theory—something that my post-college brain is not in shape to do—I began to think about how our society perceives perfection. We as westerners see others as perfect, or we strive for perfection ourselves. We sometimes think we have the most perfect job, or have seen the most perfect sunset. We struggle with perfection of our bodies and minds. We constantly push forward in ways that we think guarantee an intangible conception of perfection, which is obviously extremely problematic
Laos is a country void of the western, perfection-seeking mentality. People live for grilled fish with their families and learning English after an already long day at school. When I go out for a run in the morning, striving for the perfect workout that will help me have a perfect race, the smoky wafts of morning meat cooking snap me back into reality—will I ever run back to my doorstep and think that it was enough to somehow achieve perfection? Definitely not. When I show up to evening class, already conceding to myself that this is not the “perfect” job for me, my students are there before me, clinging on to my every word as a way out of poverty and illiteracy. We can’t possibly be looking for perfection in our professional lives when we are surrounded with those who are only seeking to have a professional life.
As many westerners find when they fling themselves into an environment that they deem less fortunate than their own, it is actually our own that has created an illusion of quantitative perfection, absent in other societies, and automatically set us up for failure. Meanwhile, people in a country with a tagline like, “Laos: Please Don’t Rush” have seemingly no problem with achieving qualitative happiness on a daily basis.
Ultimately, this exploration is just one route towards mindfully experiencing the world, towards Yogi Bahjan’s 3 a.m. wake up recipe for success, and towards that hippie, “living in the moment” bull@$*%. While Plato’s Theory of Forms was a course of philosophic explanation, I see it as a folktale with a morality punchline: the “perfect” does not exist, so let’s stop looking for it.
– By WorkingAbroad Blogger Amy Katz
Photo by Gorgo from Wikimedia