Chesterton was Right/or was He?

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

We’ve always been taught to do the best we can.  Nothing less than the best is satisfactory.  People who settle for less than the best are those satisfied just to get by, with a minimum amount of effort.  And the fact of the matter is that they really don’t get by.  They’re on a slippery slope, and they’re just going to slip off too much, very much more than the best.  They’re just trying to slip by, to get a good enough grade in school to avoid failing.   But they’ve got no ambition, and they’re not going to amount to much.

But, on the other hand, there is such a thing as a perfectionist.  For such a person, nothing less than the best is satisfactory.  They are often intense persons, unhappy when they come in second, becoming vice-president instead of president, or getting a B in class instead of an A.  Satchel Paige had them in mind when he said, apropos of a footrace: “Never look back.  They might be gaining on you.”  They get the job done.  It Is wonderful to run an organization staffed by such people.  They’re organized to the nth degree, and are never caught unprepared or off guard.  They’re leadership people for whom failure is an unthinkable word.

But, could it be that the best is the enemy of the good?  Can the effort one puts out to get a job done or to succeed or to maintain a high energy reputation be self-defeating?  Can it drain so much of one’s energy that there’s nothing left for anything else?  Can giving 110% of one’s effort leave one exhausted for anything else?  Is the student who is so committed to the best in studies discover that he or she has no time left for sports or friends or fun or down-time?   There may be many a good thing one lets get away because there is no time for it, given one’s pursuit of perfection.  Or, are there people so built as to be  unhappy with anything less than the best, unfulfilled with not doing the best possible?  Maybe God has endowed some people with such high energy and extraordinary talent that achieving the best does not drain them of the capacity for doing other good things.  When one studies golfers, one may note how meticulous some golfers are in assessing every blade of grass looming before his/her golf ball, in contrast to another golfer casually who casually moves up to the green and taps the ball, without further ado.

Maybe there are perfectionists who do have time for other things.  We love to be in their company because they do everything  well, with complete aplomb.  They are at ease and put everyone else at ease.  Then there are those who are good at whatever they do, but without trying to be perfect in everything.  We may sometimes wish they tried just a little harder so that they could be at the top of the list in something, but that doesn’t seem to be their ambition.  For them it’s good enough to be simply good at what one is doing.  What is more desirable: to be excellent at whatever one attempts, or at just one particular task, or simply to be good at a variety of things?  G.K. Chesterton once quipped that if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.  That’s a variation on what we usually hear, namely, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.  Might Chesterton be right?   Which is better:  to do a poor job rather than do nothing: to have a fallen cake for dessert rather than no dessert at all?  Or, to have a fairly good meal followed by a cake that has fallen, or to have a perfect cake that came at the expense of an adequately prepared meal?  The perfect: must it be at the expense of the good, or can it coexist with what is good enough, or must it always surround itself with the best on all sides?

Author: CPP

We are a community of laymen and laywomen who, with vowed Passionists, seek to share in the charism of St. Paul of the Cross through prayer, ongoing spiritual formation, and proclamation of the message of Christ Crucified.

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