I don’t mind admitting I’m a bit of a dreamer. To coin some familiar language, I believe in change, I’m a “yes we can” sort of person, and sometimes find people’s lack of aspiration frustrating. I look around the city (London) and, despite rumbling anti-austerity complaints, I see so many opportunities. I’m grateful for the society I live in and consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. I have plenty to eat, plenty to do, hope for the future, and friends to share the journey. There is deep contentment in that.
But while I have high hopes, I also have realistic expectations, and decidedly limited aspirations. ‘Anti-aspirity’ if you will. I don’t want to take my material comforts too far, being wary, as Jesus put it, of the law of diminishing spiritual returns: the more we value material wealth, the more we forfeit true riches. I believe that to be true. So, with all due respect to the designers and engineers and craftspeople who dedicate their lives to these things, the best life I can imagine for myself does not feature a Lexus. Or even a pair of Ray Bans. Or do we really believe that a plastic label on plastic sunglasses is worthy of a £100 price tag? They’re just plastic specs.
I don’t want to drive a luxury vehicle or spend £1,000 on a bag, and I really do not want Philip Green’s £100 million yacht. The instinct is to covet them – someone else’s legs, handbag, wife, life… – and I admit I’d sort of like to look like a stylish person in a stylish house with matching furniture, but deep down (perhaps more by necessity than choice!) I’ve come to realise I actually like things a little bit less than ideal. I’m not proud of it, the cushions don’t match at all, but my rubbish sofa is okay. So is yours, because in reality the ideal home is measured in things like safety, peace, love and companionship among the people who live there, not by the monetary value of stuff.
My ideals aren’t perfect, and I like the imperfection. It’s the assumption that perfection is a universal goal that I find stifling. For example, whenever I cross the street I see a billboard advertising luxury (unaffordable) apartments. The image is of a sexy young couple, the woman gazing into the distance clutching a cocktail; the man (boyfriend? husband? pest at a party?) peering over her shoulder. I simply don’t desire the cold sexy apartment this image is trying to sell, and I think most people’s desires are more diverse than that, more complex than that. I’m all for personal growth and development; what I don’t want is a wealth accumulation plan that’s all about wealth accumulation, and lament for the society that says “this is what it’s all about”.
It can be hard to work out what we really want and need, and who we really are, when the pursuit of perfection is brandished all around. If our happiness is caught up on these hooks, be it the perfect partner, family, lifestyle or career, the Bible says beware. It is all a matter of chasing after the wind: transient, fleeting, insubstantial. Nowhere in Scripture is this kind of perfection held up as virtue. Instead we are shown the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, ‘who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing.’ When Jesus asks his followers to do the same, and to love others who are less than perfect, perhaps it’s because he knows that if we find ourselves unable to do that, we’ll find ourselves unable to love God. If we’re still talking hair, teeth, material possessions and career success, even Jesus isn’t perfect. But thank God for that, because his, yours, and my fulfilment lies elsewhere; in the pursuit of love, peace, humility and justice, foregoing perfect but vacuous ‘ideals’ for something challenging but truly enriching, and real.