Intrinsic Worth

Are We Perfect Just the Way We are?

Are we perfect just the way we are?

If you are anything like me, you will occasionally read a meme on social media or hear a song that communicates that all of us are perfect just the way we are.

And if you are also anything like me, you may have rolled your eyes in skepticism at such claim.

After all, most of us are acutely aware of the many ways we are deeply imperfect.

Picture by Shelly P. Johnson.

Fair enough. I certainly understand such skepticism, and I will address it at the end of this post.

Despite such skepticism, the older I get, the more I believe two things about the claim “You are perfect just the way you are.”

One: I believe that this claim is 100% true in an important way we often overlook.

Two: I believe that understanding the way in which this claim is true is essential for our success in life. (I will define what I mean by success shortly.)

Let me explain both these beliefs.

First, let me explain why the claim that we are perfect just the way we are is 100% true in an important way that we often overlook.

To explain this, I want to explore how we often look at ourselves and other people according to a mechanistic paradigm.

This paradigm is primarily what causes our skepticism over claims that we are perfect just the way we are.

When we view people according to a mechanistic paradigm, we think of people somewhat like machines.

“Bonsack Machine”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

That is, we believe they are supposed to deliver appropriate outputs dictated to them by their computer programming.

The “computer programming” in this case might be certain standards like those of appearance, talent, or success.

And the appropriate output, then, is meeting such standards.

When we view people, consciously or not, in a mechanistic way, we might demonstrate the following behaviors:

  • We may habitually judge ourselves and other people according to external social standards.

  • As a result, we are likely constantly critical of ourselves and others for all the ways we fail to meet these standards.

  • We may feel anxious and stressed a lot and feel like a failure as we see that we fail to deliver appropriate outputs and meet appropriate standards.

  • Or we may constantly feel disappointed and disillusioned with others for not meeting our standards.

  • We tend to view ourselves and others in a black-and-white manner: people either behave well, or they don’t.

  • And we may have perfectionist views of ourselves and others as well.

By the way, I recommend The Perfection Trap by Thomas Curran, a psychology professor at the London School of Economics. He has documented rapidly escalating rates of perfectionism since the 80s and suggests some causes of, and solutions to, this problem.

As you can imagine, the more we view ourselves in a mechanistic manner, it  seems ludicrous to believe we are perfect.

That is because we are acutely aware of how we fail to deliver appropriate outputs.

But let me suggest an alternative paradigm we might use to think about people.

It is a growth paradigm.

When we think of people according to a growth paradigm, we think of people as original, one-of-a-kind beings.

As such, we realize they are in the process of expressing something uniquely good inside of them.

This is, in fact, the way we tend to view trees or other things in nature, like flowers or fruits and vegetables in our garden.

Picture courtesy of Shelly P. Johnson.

For example, my husband and I are growing a garden, and every morning we go out to check on the progress of our plant babies.

Now, on the one hand, I do have certain standards I would like my plants to meet.

For instance, I would like my cucumbers to grow, be healthy, and bear delicious cucumbers for me to eat and share with my neighbors.

This is a reasonable expectation for cucumber plants, and in fact cucumbers want to grow and be healthy plants. They want to flourish like cucumbers.

On the other hand, I know that my cucumber plants, as well as all my other plants, are unique, one-of-a kind plants.

And because of this, I know they are on their own timetable, in the process of expressing something wonderful and good inside of them.

And I know that the process and final appearance for each cucumber plant will be different.

It would be inappropriate for me to decide that my cucumbers must look exactly like I think they should or grow exactly when I think they should grow.

Now, my cucumbers will grow, because that is what cucumbers do. But they will all look slightly different and grow on their own timetable.

So, it is wise for me to do all I can to support the growth of my plants because I know they are perfect in their unique process.

Picture courtesy of Shelly P. Johnson

Now what if we were to view people according to this growth paradigm?

If we viewed people like we often view plants, we would still  hold certain standards for them appropriate to the kind of creature human beings are.

For instance, we recognize that just like seeds look a certain way when they function well, people also behave in a certain way when they function well.

Some characteristics of well-functioning human behavior are a sense of purpose, responsibility, and respect for others.

We expect that healthy people should generally demonstrate these characteristic behaviors in some way.

Nevertheless, if we view people according to a growth paradigm, we will also realize that people are on their own timetable.

As such, we know they are in the process of expressing something wonderful and good inside of them.

And because we understand this, we would respect that people’s lives are all going to look a bit different.

And we understand that they are going to grow and express their perfection on their own unique timetable.

Drawing and painting by  Shelly P. Johnson.

So, we do all we can to support that growth.

Perhaps you can see now that viewing people according to a growth paradigm means that we would indeed see that we, and other people, are perfect exactly the way we are.

Each of us, like a seed, has something powerful and good inside of us that wants to grow and express itself.

That power and goodness is perfect. And our unique process is an expression of that perfection.

Ancient Confucian philosophers spoke of this positive power humans have as ren, which means something like benevolence, universal love, care and respect.

Picture of Confucius, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

(My own Christian tradition has a similar idea theologians refer to as the image of God, or what I refer to as original love, which you can read about here.)

Confucians believed that ren is the way of heaven.

It is a gift and a power that allows us to be fully excellent human beings, individually and communally, acting well and bringing goodness to the world.

So, in this sense, we are perfect as we are.

We possess this power of goodness, and we need to focus on expressing the goodness we have inside of us.

We do this rather than worrying that we aren’t at the right place in the process.

Now, if you are worried that this sort of view excuses bad behavior, sin, or that it encourages laziness, you can skip to the end of this post.

I address such concerns there.

But before I do that, I am going to explain why believing we are perfect just the way we are is essential for our success in life.

By success I mean our ability to express our unique human goodness in our unique situation in life to make the world a better place.

Unfortunately, we often get the message that being successful as a person mean having lots of big, expensive things; or doing big, expensive things; or gaining recognition and fame.

But we can, in fact, have and do all these things and not be successful.

For instance, our pursuit of wealth, fame, and recognition could lead us to destroy our own life and our relationships with others.

Drawing and painting by Shelly P. Johnson. When we get caught up in doing more and acquiring more and bigger things, I think of this as a zombie lifestyle because all we can think of us more, more, more.

And this pursuit could make us miserable and hopeless.

Such pursuit could also cause us to completely lose our sense of purpose, responsibility, and respect for others.

And in that case, we wouldn’t be a very successful human being.

But if we believe that we all are perfect the way we are, and our purpose in life is to express that perfection, that helps us cultivate our sense of purpose, responsibility, and respect for others.

And this how we become successful people. (By the way, believing we are perfect helps us cultivate positive emotions which helps us succeed, which you can read more about here: Can Cultivating Positive Emotions Help us Succeed?)

I think if a classical Confucian scholars read this post, they would point out that ren is a power every human has.

It is their perfection, and it is a perfection they also work to express over the course of their lifetime.

Now what about the worry that when we believe we are perfect just the way we are it encourages laziness, or it encourages us to overlook our failures and shortcomings? Or perhaps it causes us to mistreat people?

There are a variety of ways I could address such worries. But I will address these worries in terms of health and disease.

And I will also use my plant metaphor again.

The other day I planted some squash plants in my garden bed. It is extremely hot right now, and later that day, I noticed that my squash plants looked unhealthy.

They were wilted and yellowing.

My squash plants were not feeling very powerful, I could tell.

Rather than getting mad at them, I gave them lots of water, pruned some of their dead leaves, and I was patient with them.

They are doing well now.

We see a similar thing with human beings. There are a lot of things that can make it hard for humans to express ren, or their perfection.

We all face sickness, tragedy, and trauma in our life, and these things hurt us.

In addition, humans are different from plants because we can harm ourselves by making bad choices that negatively affect our mind, body, and character.

And we can also harm others by acting badly.

It matters how we treat ourselves and other people when we realize we are suffering harm or acting badly.

One of the best ways to recover from or stop such harm is to remember that we are perfect just the way we are.

Believing we are perfect the way we are doesn’t mean we ignore our shortcomings or imperfect behavior.

Rather, it means that we remember that we have the power of love and goodness inside of us.

And we remember that we need to do all we can to help ourselves when we suffer harm, or act badly, so that we can reconnect with this power, which is our perfection.

For instance, we might work with a therapist, talk to a pastor or priest, change bad habits, heal trauma, meditate or pray, dance, walk, or do something else to reconnect with this power.

( You can read more about this here: Dealing with Our Dark Side.)

In other words, we can both believe we are perfect and realize that in the moment that we are acting badly and need to change our current behavior.

But believing we are perfect just the way we are (in the way I have defined it) is the very thing we often need to reconnect with the power of love and goodness so we can change.

Mencius, a student of Confucius writes about this love, which he calls the passion-nature. He writes,

This is the passion-nature—it is exceedingly great, and exceedingly strong.

Being nourished by rectitude, and sustaining no injury, it fills up all between heaven and earth.[1]

And he adds,

Be always studious to be in harmony with the ordinances of God, so you will certainly get for yourself much happiness.[2]

Picture of Mencius, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

So, Friend, today I want to remind you that you are perfect just the way you are.

You have the power of love inside of you that wants to help you live your unique life beautifully.

This is true about you and everyone else.

So please do all you can to nurture your own perfection—ren, or love–as well as the perfection of others.

That’s how we make the world a radiant place, much like a beautiful garden.


[1] Mencius. D.C. Lau, trans. Penguin Classics, 2005. Kindle Version, 5:13

[2] Ibid, 6:6

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