Love for Imperfect Things: How to Accept Yourself in a World Striving for Perfection
December 21, 2018
Haemin Sunim's new book reminds us that we are all imperfect, that we all struggle in our life and work, and that we are all worthy of love.
Love for Imperfect Things: How to Accept Yourself in a World Striving for Perfection by Haemin Sunim, Penguin Books, 272 pages, Hardcover, December 2018, ISBN 9780143132288
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Those words from French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin have always resonated with me, ever since I first heard Talib Kweli paraphrase them in a Reflection Eternal song called "2000 Seasons" in 1997. Rather than chasing the spiritual, I found the words to be a call for raising our humanity—to understand it as the precious gift that it is, a reminder to remain present and attuned to the life we have, to the life all around us.
That is not to say that the human experience, life, isn’t hard. To experience life is also to experience suffering. The world we live in is rife with inequality and injustice. It is filled with greed and envy and unfairness. We study hard, and still don’t make the grade. We work hard and still don’t get ahead, or even come out even. Relationships get strained. Business doesn’t go as planned.
Haemin Sunim’s Love for Imperfect Things is a great salve for the struggle. It is a reminder that we are more than the jobs we hold, the grades we get, and the roles we play. A Zen Buddhist teacher from Seoul, Sunim’s writing helps us give ourselves some space to stop becoming—and to just be. When things go wrong, when we are hurt, when we fail, we tend to want to lean in and fix things. As the world speeds up, we run frantically trying to catch up—to the news, to the pace of change, to all the people we see as more successful and smarter and more savvy than we are.
In The Things You Can Only See When You Slow Down, Sunim showed that a busy mind is probably not the best response to our busy world, that we can cultivate calm and quiet amidst the noise and commotion. In Love for Imperfect Things, he shows us how our struggles can be a blessing. He writes:
The bumpy patch you’re on is part of a longer road; we have to learn to take the rough with the smooth, and see both as equal parts of our lives. When we take a broader view, the present slump can be seen as the trough of a wave, which sinks down to gather the energy it needs in order to rise again. It’s thanks to these low points that, when we’re again riding the crest of the wave, we’re able to be humble rather than arrogant, and to have the wisdom not to get carried away.
Running the risk of self-parody, I’d like to quote something I wrote when reviewing Susan David’s Emotional Agility, that “The starting point is accepting that we are imperfect beings living in an imperfect world. Accepting our flaws and shortcomings doesn’t make us complacent. It makes us courageous. It takes guts to own up to our flaws—to still get up and show up with them everyday. The first step toward change, to improvement or overcoming, is acknowledgement and acceptance.” Susan David herself wrote of how:
We want life to be as dazzling and painless as possible. Life, on the other hand, has a way of humbling us, and heartbreak is built into its agreement with the world. We’re young, until we’re not. We’re healthy, until we’re not. We’re with those we love, until we’re not. Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.
One of the greatest human triumphs is to choose to make room in our hearts for both the joy and the pain, and to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
We are more than our opinions and problems and imperfections. And yet, we are still allowed to have them. We are more than the work we do, and yet we must do it. Sunim is a monk, so his work is different than most of ours, but not as much as we might think. He writes of being upset by an older monk asking him to sweep the stairs when he was already taking on the task of heading up a group arranging the table for a formal monastic meal. But, when he actually swept the stairs, he found it took him less than five minutes to accomplish the task and wasn’t actually the burden he imagined it to be. Reflecting on this, he writes:
What distresses us is less the circumstances we find ourselves in and more the energy we expend in resisting them. Once we actually do the work, we are often surprised that it was not as hard as we imagined it to be. But when we resist, we become preoccupied by an endless cycle of negative thoughts, and in turn feel harried and stressed.
There were times while reading that I felt Sunim might be too passive. Should we accept the circumstances we find ourselves in, even as the circumstances we find ourselves in seem in dire need of radical, foundational, systemic change. Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad makes a powerful case for the revolutionary, political power of women’s anger and its ability to bring about needed progress. I don’t know how to square that larger truth about the body politic with the anger that rises up in us in our everyday relationships. What I do know is that it is important to acknowledge it, that it is necessary to feel it, and that it can be harmful to try to suppress it. Perhaps this sweep of history is as necessary as sweeping the stairs. Someone has to do it. We all have to do it, but like most emotional labor, it seems like women are carrying the heaviest workload.
Sunim quotes Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki, who said, “Strictly speaking, there are no enlightened people, there is only enlightened activity.” And whether that activity is sweeping the stairs, or sweeping a new generation of leadership into political power, leading a company or carrying on the teachings and wisdom of a religious tradition, it will not be free from adversity. In fact, the more success we have, the more we will likely face. Each of Sunim's chapters ends with many pages of advice in verse, and the one on “The Art of Letting Go” contains this:
If life were free of adversity,
we wouldn’t have many opportunities to grow.
It’s in struggling to solve the challenges that life throws at us
that our talents are honed and our endurance builds.
We will hurt and be hurt by others. It is decidedly out of context, but when Sunim writes, “Choosing not to hate them is the best revenge, the only kind that won’t leave a lasting wound in your heart,” I think of all the times my friends and I get depressed, and express hate for certain business or political leaders, and the businesses and political parties they lead, who we believe are doing harm to people and to the world. And I wonder if the most revolutionary act, or “the best revenge,” is not to return hate with more hate, but to be happy in spite of it.
The way to avoid becoming servile before others
who have power, fame, or money
is to be happy with your life.
If there is nothing you need from those people,
you can be confident and dignified with whomever you meet.
When you want something from them, you become servile.
I am getting way beyond the beautiful advice Sunim offers. He tends to stick to more immediate topics, like why you should invite your friends over if you don’t feel like cleaning your house, and why it’s nice to show up five minutes late when friends invite you to dinner. At points, it seems random and simple, but life is random, and it can be that simple if you choose to live simply and deliberately—and you don’t have to remove yourself to a monastery to do so. Sunim offers guidance on depression, failure, and courage. In doing so, he gives us a fresh lens to view our relationships to each other and our relationship the universe. His words offer a way to view the world, which allowed me to examine both the minutiae of my personal life and to consider the larger momentum of our collective human history. But, most importantly, it reminded me:
Because I have experienced pain,
I am able to embrace the pain of others.
Because I have made mistakes,
I am able to forgive others their mistakes.
May my suffering become the seed of compassion.
Maimouna Youssef uttered the words I began this review with when in her Tiny Desk concert earlier this year. "We are spiritual beings having a human experience," she said, "and nothing else is ever true." Our human experience is bound to be imperfect. We are all imperfect things. And we are all worthy of love. That is the lesson I hope to carry personally into the new year, for myself and for others, and that I think this whole harsh world can benefit from. I thank Haemin Sunim greatly for providing 272 humble, kind, and generous pages reminding us of exactly that, along with practical advice for how to act on it every day.