I used to be a perfectionist, but I now realise that it is the plague of modern lifeby Susan Greenberg / June 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
There is something about the criticism of Nato bombing in Serbia which strikes an odd note. It is not that the critics are necessarily “wrong,” or that the Nato action is “right.” It is the feeling of a mismatch: that they are criticising the wrong war.
If one thing is clear about the Kosovo affair, it is that we have entered new and uncharted territory and are making policy as we go along. Yet most of the critics of the Nato action are certain that the government, Nato, Washington or the “west” are wrong. Harold Pinter’s recent burblings on Newsnight, telling us that this was another Vietnam, was just the most grotesque example.
These issues have already been debated at the level of politics and strategy. But what interests me is the more submerged level of feelings and expectations. There is a state of mind-I know because I used to share it-which invites permanent disappointment by always seeking perfection.
Hence, the Nato action is all wrong because there have been mistakes, in tactics, strategy and bombing accuracy. Or nothing should be done because the west did not intervene in Rwanda or East Timor, and it is therefore hypocritical to do so in Kosovo. Of course, when it did nothing, the west was attacked for failing to protect the defenceless. Whatever the policy or outcome, it is all the west’s fault.
After a while, you begin to suspect that nothing the “authorities” do will ever be right. They are like embarrassing parents in front of a tantrum throwing teenager: it’s not fair; you’re awful; you didn’t let me stay out late; you never this; you always that…
This attitude is seeping into too many arguments-in public and private life: why bother with marriage when it might end in divorce? Why try to define an ethical foreign policy, when there are inconsistencies? Why trust any profession, when some of its practitioners have erred?
While conducting an interview for the Mindfield debate book series, I encountered an interesting analysis of this perfection problem from the psychotherapist Andrew Samuels. He was elaborating on his concept of the “good-enough leader,” which is itself derived from Donald Winnicott’s concept of the “good-enough mother.” Winnicott’s idea is that in order to develop properly, an infant must learn that the early, blissful illusion of perfect mother and baby cannot be sustained. (The Kleinian explanation is that the…