Have you ever drawn a realistic-looking tree? I haven’t. Creating lifelike visual representations of nature with my own hands (drawing, painting, sculpting) does not come easily to me. I have a hard time with such things because I’m wired to pursue symmetry.
I’m a recovering perfectionist. I like precise circles, straight lines, and right angles. Up until I began to fear I’d drown in the deluge of my college reading requirements, I always highlighted and underlined with a ruler. Even my clutter is organized. My junk drawer is in order.
But nature does not limit itself to order. It is not restricted to precise circles or straight lines. When I look at nature — a tree perhaps — what strikes me is that its beauty comes not from its perfection, but from its essence. A tree can be nothing other than a tree. If it is in any way perfect, it is perfectly natural. It is not predictable or contrived. It is simply itself.
A real tree doesn’t look like a piece of construction paper cut with safety scissors, stacked triangles, or an arrangement of straight lines. Real trees have gaps, crooked boughs, and meandering roots. Real trees aren’t symmetrical. The trees in a real forest do not resemble a military company standing in perfect rows and columns.
Perfection is a contradiction of nature. When I seek perfection for myself — be it physical, relational, intellectual, or in any other area — I do damage to and deny my nature, which is inherently not perfect.
Part of the beauty of nature stems from its defiance of perfection. Every sunrise and sunset is unique. The colors don’t meet in perfectly straight boundaries. They bleed and seep and dissolve into one another. It’s beautifully messy. The night’s sky is not impressive because each star is precisely the same distance from its neighbor. It is beautiful because it is random, immeasurable, and majestic. The peaks of a mountain range do not elicit awe because they are equidistant.
I’ve learnt a lot from the tree. It reminds me that I do not (cannot, and should not) need to be perfect to be me. It’s okay that I don’t have a flawless smile. Trees have crooked branches, and they do just fine. It’s okay that I’m not taller or thinner — or that I don’t look like her. Trees come in a variety of shapes and sizes and colors. And just as a tree doesn’t try to be a flower or an elephant, I should not try to be someone else. I should not pursue someone else’s goals or standards. It’s my job to be myself.
Even the most asymmetrical tree can make a good home for a bird. Even crooked branches can create shade for someone seeking respite from the sun. Trees produce fruits that are irregularly shaped but still delicious — unevenly colored, but still nutritious. These edible arboreal offerings are no less sweet just because they are unattractive. I too, just as I am, with my array of talents and shortcomings, can offer things that are good — such as friendship, generosity, compassion, and love.
Nature is wild and sprawling and imperfect. To live is to be blemished. Anomalies are common. Let the machines strive to be flawless. I don’t want to limit my life to straight lines, right angles, and precise circles. I want to live in harmony with my humanity — even when it’s flawed and messy.
I could try to cut out my faults and deny my deviations, but then I’d be like that construction paper tree — not dynamic or life-giving. I don’t want to chain myself to the pursuit of perfection. I want to release myself to the freedom of being natural.
There is beauty in the wild, the irregular, and the unpredictable. Nature isn’t always neat, and neat isn’t always beautiful.
[Headline image: The photograph shows the branches of a tree with green leaves and white flowers against the sky. Photograph copyright Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg.]