Dangerous Words: Imperfect

Dangerous words are words that cause harm to the speaker and/or the listener. That harm can be intentional or unintentional and may manifest in different ways. The purpose of this series is to help us think about the language we use and how it might be supporting systems or structures that are harmful. Today, our dangerous word is “imperfect.”

I’ve used the word “imperfect” a lot, because I’ve heard and talked about Matthew 5:48 many times. The idea of perfect and imperfect human beings comes up often in Christianity and the specific context where “imperfect” can become harmful is when we’re talking about human beings.

Human Perfection

In order to talk about imperfection, we have to have an idea of perfection. That is, “imperfect” is always a relative idea. What does perfect look like, and how is this thing different from perfect? When we talk about human imperfection, we must first imagine human perfection and then ask, “How is this human different from human perfection?”

The problem is that there’s no such thing as a perfect human. Also, there never has been, nor will there ever be. This makes our idea of human perfection purely theoretical and not in the scientific theory sense. This is exacerbated by the fact that humans have a hard time imagining things they’ve never seen or experienced. It seems to me that we’re quite literally incapable of imagining an actually perfect human being.

When we imagine human perfection, we build from our own ideas about what’s desirable, which makes it difficult to be fully inclusive in our visions of perfection. Even seemingly basic characteristics can be debated. How many fingers and toes is the perfect number? What kind of emotional capacity is perfect? Is there even any diversity in our visions of perfection, or do we only imagine a single, perfect human copied and pasted across all humanity?

Answering these questions from our own experiences and desires inevitably diminishes the experiences and desires of others, because their imaginations weren’t “big” enough or “perfect” enough to guide the creation of human perfection. It also immediately categorizes everyone we know as imperfect, including ourselves. These are the things that start to harm us and others.

Holding Two Truths

I think the idea of human imperfection is often about holding two truths:

  1. That we have limitations and
  2. That we’re worthy of love just the way we are.

In my experience and in my observations of others, being honest and vulnerable about our limitations can help free us from toxic expectations and shame. This was true for me having grown up in fundamentalist Christian circles; owning my own “imperfection” was a way of reclaiming my narrative.

Strict, legalistic doctrines use shame to prod people to conformity. The process is that limitations are called imperfections, and imperfection is sin (in contrast to Jesus who was without sin). To put it another way, we’re “imperfect” because we’re “fallen,” which is to be in a state of sinfulness. Part of resisting that shame is naming my “imperfection” and learning to love myself anyway.

Embracing Diversity

Because of the way “imperfect” has been used to shame people in religious communities, the word carries a lot of baggage. It can be triggering or harmful if used carelessly, and I think it’s often misleading, at best. I think the more we learn to be inclusive, the more we’ll see that “human imperfection” is usually just “human diversity.”

While the perfect/imperfect comparisons can diminish or dismiss people because of their differences, diversity can celebrate people because of those same differences. Human diversity resists more than just shame; it resists the temptation to condescend on all of humanity. Human diversity has potential to help us lift each other up. It can turn up the volume on voices that are normally silenced and shine a light on people and communities often kept in shadow. Where the language of imperfection suffocates, the language of diversity breathes life.

Language is fluid and complex. Words are not either good or bad; context matters. Still, I believe that so far as we’re able, we should avoid using the word “imperfect” as a way of describing human limitations. Our limitations are real, but our limitations aren’t necessarily imperfections. Humans are diverse, and it’s past time humanity learned to make space for and celebrate that diversity as worthy of love rather than something to be shamed.

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