Realizing Perfection
By A.D. Freudenheim  

25 July 2004

In the mid-to-late 1980s, as the Soviet Union’s client states imploded and the Berlin Wall was destroyed, a terrific (and possibly apocryphal) story circulated about the late East German leader Erich Honecker. It was said that in the last few years of his dictatorship, as the situation in East Germany became more dire, he was driven to work along a route that had been fixed up specially for him – one showing pretty painted houses and clean vistas among the otherwise gray and dingy East Berlin streets. At the time, it seemed an easy-to-believe and very obvious story: the aging ruler of a long-declining nation would certainly not want to see the misery around him, and no doubt his aides took the opportunity to ensure that their leader’s seeing matched his believing.

There is something else that sticks out in this story, an element perhaps more sinister and complex than the mere deception of someone’s eyes. The totalitarian nature of the East German state was, in a certain sense, embodied by Honecker – and Honecker, as the personification of the state, ruthlessly sought a his own vision of political perfection; obsessively so, even when none was to be found. The gussied-up route to work is only a small example: the scores of former East German athletes who have come forward to describe how they were used as guinea pigs for drugs that might make them more competitive Olympians; the copious Stasi files revealing how citizens were encouraged to spy on one another for the betterment of the state; the brutally-functional construction projects in East Berlin that dared to look vaguely Western – as if pretending that East Berlin had all that the West did – even as the truth was so bitterly obvious; all of these are examples of this failed political perfectionism.

Honecker was hardly alone in his delusions (and if East Germany under Honecker was unpleasant, Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea must be unimaginably worse). In fact, it seems as though there is a certain connection between the pursuit of perfection and the megalomania that results in a society causing broad harm to its own citizens. Think only of the 20th century’s list of would-be political-and-personal messianists: Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Tito, Castro, Pol Pot, Peron, Amin, Mobutu, Pinochet, Hussein, Milosevic, Mugabe – all leaders who inflicted tremendous damage to their nations and peoples by believing, unfailingly, that the perfection they sought for themselves was attainable – and valuable, and necessary – for the nation around them.[1] Something about an individual’s pursuit of perfection seems to allow people to become oblivious to the responses of others – and to whether or not we harm them in the process.


Perfection is an elusive goal. In and of itself, it is not required in order for us humans to live happy and successful lives; sometimes the striving for perfection can be as important as actually achieving it. However, there is also a social cost to pursuing perfection; being aware of these costs, on ourselves and on those around us, is equally important. The challenge is to know when to stop, to be able to see when the desire for the absolute could be satisfied – and could satisfy others – with acceptance of something that may be shy the ideal. Perfection, in other words, may take many and sometimes unexpected forms.

This awareness is important because separate from political totalitarianism is an emotional form of the same, also driven by an individual’s relentless pursuit of perfection. From one person’s needs can come uncomfortable and unhappy environments for everyone else. An entire group (a family, for example) can be made to suffer for someone’s desire for perfection, and that need can stifle all other perspectives and opinions. It can polarize and oppress as effectively as any political structure. Moreover, it may be such an obvious reflection of that individual’s inherent unhappiness – an unhappiness often related to the matter at hand – that challenging the person or their views becomes a seemingly-monumental task. The connection between a desire for perfection and an underlying depression may not be obvious, but may be present nonetheless.

Of course, the obvious distinction is that in most social situations, when someone’s behavior is upsetting or oppressive, we can leave – leave the room, or leave the situation. In national or political terms, this is not always possible. What remains a constant is our obligation, our responsibility, to do something to address these situations, no matter how difficult. We should neither give up the desire to improve ourselves and our world, nor should we let that desire carry us away. There are always challenges – leaving the room in an oppressive social situation can seem as complicated and uncomfortable as leaving an oppressive nation – but it is often necessary. The path to standing up to the emotional or political bully may not always be obvious, but for every perfectionist imposing their needs on society or the people around them, the health, welfare, and sanity of the rest of us demands a response.

[1] As I wrote in April 2002, “...of course, only when an institution and its leaders stand as truly flawed is it necessary to declare their irrefutable perfection.” See Putting Down Beliefs.   Copyright 2004, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.