COLM O'REGAN: Perfection: Our souls are incomplete until we get the first stain

I CAN’T remember much from my formal education — just useful snippets: “Stony grey soil of Monaghan you burgled my bank of youth”; the stages of development of an oxbow lake; how long it takes for an oven to cool if the oven-door is left open; and the Hardness Index.

The hardness index is not who in your class could ‘take’ you in a fight. It’s a scale that rates minerals according to whether they can scratch each other — so effectively, which minerals could take each other in a fight. Talc is the softest, Diamond is the hardest. You can apply it informally in the home as well.

For example it turns out the hardness index of a coal scuttle is higher than that of the paint on a recently painted wall against which, the coal scuttle has been accidentally swung by a man warned by his wife to be careful with that coal scuttle; thus creating the first scratch on the wall.

There was a brief moment of sadness when I made that first scratch, but then relief. A newly painted wall makes me tense. The room was painted by a proper painter. You think you can paint until you get a painter in. Turns out, a bristle preserved forever in the wall or a brush pattern around the light switch that resembles Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ is not inevitable.

The problem is that when our professional painter is done, the wall is perfect. Not perfect structurally — this is Ireland after all, where building regulations have one unwritten overriding clause that says “the house should be grand I’d say”. The surface is perfect. Hence the tension, because sooner or later there’s going to be ‘a first dirt’.

‘First dirt’ is another thing I remember from my education. If you arrived into school with new shoes, the other lads in the class would attempt to stand on your feet, shouting “First dirt” as they tried to get dirt on your new shoes. I remember at the time being annoyed at their destructive impulses. What is it about a nice thing that offends them so much? I thought. Although I probably phrased it more along the lines of “WOULD YE COP ON?”

But now I think I understand. They knew that the perfection of the new shoes would be a burden to me, so they were merely relieving me of the burden. First dirt is like the opposite of baptism. Our souls are incomplete until we get the first stain.

Or maybe they were protecting me from various gods. Throughout the history of deities, perfection has been an issue. Each work of Islamic textile art was said to include a deliberate mistake so as not to offend The Creator, as he is the only one that can make anything perfect.

In Greek mythology, the goddess Athena and the mortal Arachne had a weaving contest and such was the perfection of Arachne’s creation that Athena flew into a rage and destroyed it. Arachne was so upset that she hanged herself but Athena took pity on her and loosened her ropes — but then turned her into a spider because Greek gods just can’t do the simple thing, oh no.

And while striving for perfection might be admirable, it can be counterproductive too.

It was the French author Voltaire who said “le mieux est l’ennemi du bien” (the perfect is the enemy of the good). Sometimes things just need to get done rather than wait forever to get them perfect.

Although I’d say he’d still tell you to be careful with that coal scuttle.

That’s my article. I’m not saying it’s perfect but so as not to offend anyone, here’s a deliberate mistkae.

First dirt is like the opposite of baptism. Our souls are incomplete until we get the first stain


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