The enemy of good is perfect

A song today reminded me of a troubled acquaintance. I have genuine affection for this man, although we are not intimate friends. I am also currently in a stage of life that involves vanishingly small emotional and temporal reserves. I would like to write a kind note to him, some expression of solidarity and remembrance for his recent trials. Part of me fears, though, that he would call me on it. He would ask me to be present for him at a much higher level than an occasional kind word. And I would either become enmeshed in a turmoil that distracts me from my family, or he would decry me as a hypocrite.

I have been present with enough people to know that those who suffer often do not look kindly on people who write platitudes or distant condolences but refuse to engage on a deeper level when it is asked of them. These kindly expressions become a mockery of the type of nurturing relationship that they crave. I do not want to add insult to injury or heap up emotional strain as I raise and then frustrate expectations.

Instead of undertaking such a perilous act, though, I remain silent, not daring to share the kindness that I feel at the level I believe I can support.

Am I being paranoid? Is this an instance of a demand for perfection preventing the exercise of good? Or should I stay silent unless and until I can offer more than a kind word? I am sympathetic to the suggestion that the Holy Spirit should be one’s guide in such complex areas, but I suspect this topic is one many of us wonder about or struggle with.


  1. Julie M. Smith says:

    “Dear Joe,

    I’ve been thinking of you and your recent struggles. I want you to know that I have been praying for you. I wish I had the emotional and temporal reserves to offer you much more than that, and I sincerely hope that I will shortly. In the meantime, I pray that your life will be filled with those who can offer you the care that I currently cannot.

    Best, SamMB”

  2. The Lantern out of Doors

    Sometimes a lantern moves along the night.
    That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
    I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
    With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?

    Men go by me whom either beauty bright
    In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
    They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
    Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

    Death or distance soon consumes them: wind,
    What most I may eye after, be in at the end
    I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.

    Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
    There, eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follows kind,
    Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend.
    —Gerard Manley Hopkins

  3. I think that there always is a way to express love and support and empathy and concern in a way that is appropriate – and full disclosure and honesty is a good place to start.

    Julie put it perfectly for me. I know I would appreciate such a note, and I hope I would not ask for more.

  4. This is my experience (not necessarily yours):

    I find that I project my own worst self on other people, rather than assume they are as good, or better, than I am at my best.

  5. Sam – Julie’s suggested note seems perfect. I think it is always uplifting and appropriate – for the giver and the receiver – for heartfelt thoughts to be expressed in a letter or note. I have always appreciated them in times of trouble and in better times as well. As an example, a card of condolence – simple and thoughtful – to someone who has lost a loved one is always welcome. Nothing more needs to be done. And NO, I don’t think you’re being paranoid. You’re just a concerned friend who understands your own limitations. Best of luck in your quandary.

  6. anon for now.... says:

    As one who has been through some serious recent trials, I would be frustrated at that note. I would be thinking if you know I am suffering why won’t you help me? For me it would rub salt in the wound that I am suffering, have no support but you recognize this and still are not helping. Just my opinion. You know this person better than I do and can better judge whether what you want to do will help or hurt.

  7. also anon for now says:

    I think anon for now has a point worth considering. Maybe you should send a note like the one Julie proposes, but maybe not–only you can put yourself (gingerly) into your acquaintance’s shoes. Perhaps it might be better for him to presume your boundless but unexpressed support than to receive a note limiting and qualifying that support. I don’t think that King Benjamin confining the sentiment “I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give” to the (non-)giver’s heart was an accident; it may not be much of a balm to the beggar’s ears. Good luck with this situation.

  8. I agree with the anons. By adding the limitation, you are saying you care, but not enough to actually do anything. Why say that? “You are in my thoughts and prayers” says a lot. It doesn’t commit to anything, and doesn’t hold out the (false) hope that you will do more than that. A handwritten note shows you thought enough to find the card or stationery, write something, address the envelope and mail it.

  9. I think Julie’s note was okay. I think it’s okay to care without taking care of. I liked anon’s thoughts, but they seemed to reinforce samb’s concerns. If he (or she?) cannot express his concern without offering more, he’s not sincere. That’s not fair.

    I, like Samb, have little reserves at the moment. I simply cannot take care of anyone.

    If, while I’m struggling with health issues, say, got a note from someone saying, “I know you’re struggling and I want you to know that I care about you, even though I am also struggling and can do very little to help you” I wouldn’t be insulted. I’d understand. I’d probably send the same note back.

    Samb, your title is wise, beyond your topic. Perfect is the opposite of good in almost every area of our lives.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    A similar situation was raised in the Chicago Tribune’s advice column recently, written by Amy Dickenson (a descendant of Emily). She encouraged the writing of the note, but advised not to promise or suggest more than good thoughts/prayers in the note, and to be prepared emotionally to decline a request for assistance that might follow in the note’s wake.


  11. What song was it?

  12. I don’t have much advice to give, Sam, but the sentiment expressed in Julie’s note seems appropriate to me. It is true that almost all of us can do more than we are doing, but it is just as true that limits nonetheless exist.

    And I actually think it would be a good thing for this individual to be reminded (or to learn for the first time) that sometimes, often even, there is very little that others can do for us, even with unlimited reservoirs of resources and good will. I do not mean to discount the exeriences of the anonymous commenters here. For all I know, their experiences have been terrible and a note such as Julie suggested would have been the equivalent of a slap in the face. But speaking from my own experience, it was a revelation to me to realize that other people, including God, have problems of their own, and that for me to expect them to drop everything and serve me in the manner I thought I deserved was really rather childish.

  13. I think I read the same column (available here).

  14. yeah, when I lost my loved ones, I treasured those notes that simply said, “God bless you” or “I care”–I didn’t start calling people and leaning on them. Those little sentiments meant a lot.

    I wonder, though, if this person you are thinking of, is someone you fear MIGHT impose on you, might need more of you than you can give. I know people like that, and I’m careful not to offer more than I can give.

  15. anon for now... says:

    I am not sure what the circumstances are of your friend’s struggles. I just know that when I was struggling I was all alone. I had no family and all of my friends were too busy with their lives. I just know for me it would be painful, not as painful as someone offering to help and then flaking, but still painful. That could just be me.

    I am not saying that you have to help, but I am saying be careful to judge the situation carefully. If you are afraid that they are going to ask for help, then you already know they are not receiving help that they need. “You’re in my thoughts and prayers” is good as long as you are really praying for them.

    Can you do something to help that doesn’t get you overly involved? For example if they are struggling financially send them an anonymous gift card for $20 to a grocery store. If you know they are depressed leave them flowers with a note and no name. If they are sick leave them a gift card for a restaurant that delivers or some magazines to read, etc. I am sure you get the idea. If you do it with no name attached you are helping, but within your limitations and in a way that can’t set up expectations. And they don’t feel like it is an empty gesture. Wow, this is long…

  16. To echo #15, when I lost my job shortly before Christmas, with 4 young children, one of the greatest blessings we received was an anonymous gift of Christmas presents for our kids from someone who knew what it felt like to be jobless. That’s all the card said. It happened over 10 years ago, but my wife and I still remember as if it was yesterday the feelings we had as we saw the gifts.

  17. The Gospel parser in me has to add one more note:

    IMO, it is not “perfection” that is the enemy of good, but rather the mis-perception of perfection. If we define “perfect” as a goal of our daily existence and as doing absolutely everything that anyone possibly could do (as is the standard outlook in “the world” and many religious readings), then it really is the enemy of good. If, OTOH, we define it as “complete” or “whole” (in accordance with the Biblical footnotes), then it becomes the ultimate, eventual result of our striving for good – not an enemy at all.

    This perspective allows us to move away from the tendency to evaluate our actions and progress in comparison to what we see others do (and the natural, works-based, Law of Moses competitiveness that accompanies trying to keep up with Bro. and Sis. Jones) and, instead, to move toward a more “grace-based” evaluation of whether or not we are doing all that *we* can do – regardless of whatever anyone else is doing. It also allows us to accept those things we simply can’t change yet and continue to work on those we think we can. After all, we teach that the Atonement of Christ covers what we are unable to do even “after all we can do.”

    I think the enemy of good is “should” – when it is applied to what we see others doing around us. We “should” do whatever we are capable of doing – nothing more. We “should” try to find ways to do more than we currently are capable of doing – without guilt or shame if that is not as much as we might want to do.

    Sam, if you can write a note (with all of its attendant emotional concerns), then perhaps you should. If you simply can’t, then you shouldn’t – but, instead, find something else you can do. “Pray for guidance” might sound trite, but it is the only thing that ultimately can determine what you individually “should” do. I can’t do that, and neither can anyone else. All we can do is offer various alternatives that have worked for us.

    (I’m sure you know that just as well as I do, so I apologize if this comment was unnecessary, but I felt compelled to submit it, anyway.)

  18. I agree with C.S.Eric in comment 8. “You’re in my thoughts and prayers” says all that needs to be said. No need to presume to rebuff a request for help before it’s even made. The note in itself is a worthy gesture, and could bring a spiritual uplift at a time when it’s most needed. To go further to stake out limits leaves a sour taste.

  19. I agree. You can always say “no” (with an appropriate explanation) if and when you are asked to do more. An “anticipatory no” seems like an insult.

  20. Sam,

    I think your question is a profound one. Its complexities reflect some interesting modern tangles. On one hand, our culture has become one of ever more loneliness amid ever bigger crowds.
    (Very much-read book decades ago: The Lonely Crowd.) On the other hand, as Carolyn Myss says,many of us now speak “woundology,” focusing, even with strangers or those we know only slightly, on our neuroses, our divorces, our traumas, etc.–
    we use our “wounds” as conversation openers whereas in a different era we used family connections (“Are you related to X?”)
    or geography (“Who do you know in Great Falls?”) or hunting or quilting.

    These imbalances make it hard to deal with the very kinds of questions you raise: how to be compassionate and responsive yet avoid being either engulfed or enabling. We cannot draw back from another’s pain.

    I think the suggestions about anonymous expressions of sympathy and concrete aid may work very well–they could help the sufferer to feel that there is a community of concern out there that they hadn’t even imagined.

    And I agree that a brief, loving card may be the Balm of Gilead sometimes. Then we all need to learn to say whatever No’s or “Not now, alas” responses that we have to say as gently and sincerely as possible.

    Thank you for raising a matter I for one don’t want to neglect in my own life.

  21. Thanks all for the thoughts. I have decided to proceed, and I will continue to think/pray through whether to express affection and sympathy anonymously or openly to this man.