(The Dialectic of) Progress Not Perfection
“Progress, not perfection” is another 12 Step cliché that has made it into mainstream culture. A Google search returned almost 380,000 hits, and not even the first page was all sobriety/recovery related. There was an artist’s blog, an AIDS program, and a self-help book with that title that looked to have nothing to do with sobriety. It got me wondering whether “progress, not perfection” has its origins in the 12 Step movement at all, or if it goes further back than that. I suppose it doesn’t really matter; while the idea is of powerful use in the addictive struggle, it also, like many of these clichés, transcends it. It has a lot to say about the human condition.
One of the Google hits was a link to Everything2.com, which had this definition: “A phrase associated with programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon. Used to underscore the importance of small increments of improvement…” So maybe Bill Wilson was the first to use it, although there is no way to know how reliable this statement is. Whoever first used it, I’m sure it was with this meaning in mind. Small increments of improvement are important, and equally important is learning to recognize them and be content with them.
Any 12 Stepper can tell you this cliché speaks to the quality of willingness. Willingness to grow, learn, stay sober, make an effort, do the next right thing, “work the Steps.” As addicts tend to be all-or-nothing thinkers, bringing with them into sobriety a lifetime of high highs and low lows and not a lot in between (which I believe is a predilection for, not a result of, addiction), it’s important for them to learn to be content with “patient improvement.” This concept creates space for the slow grind of change and allows people who think in extremes to not give up when things don’t go exactly how they think they ought. In other words, it nurtures a sense of willingness.
Not only addicts think in extremes. To some extent, everyone does; this is why this cliché resonates with mainstream culture. Every one of us can identify with it in certain areas of our lives; every one of us must develop the fortitude to move toward what we want in whatever increments possible. We must become willing to create the life we want, in the face of whatever stands in our way.
All true and all valuable. And yet, there is much more meaning to be reaped from this phrase. A great paradox lies in “progress, not perfection.” It is the paradox of the human condition itself, which is that perfection is not possible, and yet we must keep trying to attain it.
We can never create exactly the life we want. Not as long as we inhabit an imperfect human body with an imperfect mind and live in an imperfect world. We will never know all there is to know, not even about ourselves: it is the dialectic of progress. With every step forward, we encounter new questions, concerns, possibilities, issues, and problems. Learning new things brings new opportunities and desires. We branch off in new directions. We may abandon old goals, or refashion them to fit into our new worldview. And if we’re lucky, this process never stops; it continues until we die.
Thus, not only must we be content with patient improvement, we must accept that it is, in all honesty, the only choice available. But this is not a bad thing. Understanding the infinite nature of this process—of progress—doesn’t have to be frustrating. It is, in fact, incredibly freeing. There is no goal to attain, no end to reach for. There is only the journey, and what we make of it.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have goals, plans, or ideas. Of course we should. But these goals, plans, and ideas, however important they are, shouldn’t define who we are or how we feel about ourselves. The belief that they can do either is an illusion, anyway. Reaching a goal feels good, but it doesn’t change who you are, as anyone who’s ever done so can tell you. Only the willingness to make progress toward unattainable perfection can do that.
I believe that the infinite nature of progress is spirituality itself. It is the essence of our being, and “progress, not perfection” is really talking about our spiritual migration toward wholeness. And herein lies another great paradox of the spiritual journey: we don’t need to become perfect to become whole. The journey itself—our choices, our actions, our beliefs—provides the wholeness. If we understand that, then progress becomes…enough. Enough to live a satisfying life.
That’s the best we can ever hope for.
Categorised as: 12 Step Cliches