Distilled Wisdom: On the Imperfectability Of Life

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This is a representational illustration that presents the imperfectability of life. Image: 7MB
The Principle of the Imperfectability of Life pervades everything we do. But compassion must always take priority.

I am sorry I have been silent for some time. I have been in Italy for weeks, doing some research on a fresco by the Italian painter Piero della Francesca, and then I met my granddaughter at Rome. She is an architect and we had a wonderful time discussing monuments, but I wanted to give her a special treat and here it is when fate taught us a lesson.

I took her for lunch at my favourite restaurant and we had a magnificent meal which, alas, refused to behave as meals are wont: next day we both returned to the world what food the restaurant had provided. As you know I am not a believer, and therefore I take the Parable of the Fall (the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise), to mean that life can never be perfect: you do something perfectly innocent such as switching on a light and a miner in Australia, digging for coal for you, dies in an accident.

If you believe in the imperfectability of life, the problem is that you cannot very much complain when things go wrong, So, when I phoned the chef of my restaurant, the first thing I told him was, please, understand that I am not complaining, the meal was magnificent and I will return to your restaurant as soon as I can, but please make sure that you take all necessary precautions to avoid any possible problems with your meals. And we talked for a few minutes, the chef surprised to find me so congenial (he had already been alerted to the disaster by some of my Italian friends) and we ended on the most cordial terms.

You might well think that my relaxed attitude to failure encourages sloppiness. But wait, I shall show you a much more serious example. Some forty years ago I designed and built a holiday house in southern Italy. My builder Giuseppe was wonderful, intelligent and conscientious, but like any builder, he made mistakes, which I only brought gently to his attention if they could be corrected. But there was a problem with some of the sub-contractors that he obviously did not control efficiently.

The worst problem was with a mild-steel spiral staircase, beautifully built by a young but very intelligent artisan. This staircase was the apple of my eye, built on a model of the beautiful staircases that Arne Jacobsen had produced at Oxford (but with an important mistake corrected which I had spotted, thus saving a lot of later trouble). The principle of the imperfectability of life struck through the hand of Bruno the painter. The staircase had to be stored on the site for some weeks and had accumulated some superficial rust.

Bruno was known never to employ sandpaper in quantities larger than postage stamps, and he gaily painted my beautiful staircase without any proper de-rusting. The result was that for the next twenty-five years I had to spend several days each year de-rusting and painting the steel work. But I never told this to Giuseppe, why would I spoil the pleasure he had in building his first house? And what is a bit of work compared with a friend for life, one who had tears in his eyes when I sold the house? So, you can see how much you gain by not complaining about the imperfections of life.

This brings me to discuss a school of ancient Greek/Roman philosophers that I much admire, the Stoic Philosophers, of which Seneca and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius are perhaps the best known. The key to their philosophy of life is that whatever happens, just happens, and it is neither good nor bad: it is us that create those values in our minds. Of course, in the early days of our planet earthquakes happened and no one was there to suffer from them but if this is so, why add our grievance to the event? If we just refuse to react to events the good result is that we do not add our personal suffering to them.

Let me give you an example: you fall, you break a leg, and you have to wear a crutch for the rest of your life. If you think that this is bad, if you resent it, you suffer twice, first for having to wear a crutch and, secondly, because you resent this fact, which you think is bad, even demeaning. This could make you depressed and even prevent you from adapting yourself to the inevitable new condition. To tell you the truth, if I were to grudge the limitations imposed by age on my life, I would be a sad old man, whereas I have never been as happy as I am now.

I said that I do admire the Stoics, but I do not want to mislead you, gentle reader. I also admire people that run the marathon, but although this is a strong reminder to keep fit, I can assure you that you will never find me, at 94, running the track. I quietly accept that the Parable of the Fall, my Principle of the Imperfectability of Life, pervades everything we do and think, and, of course, I can try as much as I sensibly can to approach the Stoics but I do not expect human nature to achieve impossible goals. If you seek perfection you could soon become unbearable. Compassion and love must always take priority and, of course, they must, within limits, apply also to yourself. Leave Sainthood to the Saints but learn from them.

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