THE CONSOLATIONS OF IMPERFECTION: Learning to Appreciate Life's Limitations
M. Scott Peck's 1978 book THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED is still known for its opening paragraph, a one-sentence reality check addressed to the upwardly mobile, ready to conquer the world: "Life is difficult."
Donald McCullough similarly starts his new book with a stark, one-line paragraph: "There are limitations in life." But unlike Peck's bestseller, this is not a book for the hale and hearty young adult who anticipates scaling mountains like "the little engine that could." Rather, it is for the person who resonates with the problem faced by Mike Mulligan and his aging steam shovel: even the brightest and best of us cannot and will not always be shiny and bright. The book is aptly subtitled "Learning to Appreciate Life's Limitations."
McCullough writes as a fifty-three-year-old recovering achiever --- a successful pastor and preacher turned seminary president whose career exploded several years ago when an unidentified-in-these-pages past failure came to light. From this loss --- of job, reputation, friends and self-definition --- he has written an insightful and helpful book with twenty well-titled chapters, each dealing with the limits of a particular aspect of the good life: achievement, romance, public approval, relationships, spirituality, moral goodness, fitness (the body), the senses, time …
It's a shame that a chapter on the limits of knowledge, "Giving Up on the New York Times Crossword Puzzle," is placed early in the book, as it is uncharacteristically heavy and could discourage readers from continuing to garner the insight of chapters such as "On Not Being Elected President (or Member of the Condo Board): The Limits of Achievement" and "Mind If I Lean on Your Arm?: The Limits of Confidence," in which McCullough admits, albeit in third person, "The man who, a few months before, thought nothing of speaking to thousands of people, was suddenly nervous about … asking for help at the bank."
McCullough's anecdotes are engaging and his analysis insightful. He does not wallow in the muck, but leads each topic to a redemptive conclusion.
His chapters follow a consistent progression: defining and discussing the value of the identified virtue (the thrill of victory), anecdotally presenting the agony of defeat, laying out consolations --- lessons learned from the loss and benefits of a new, lower-flying life. Many of these consolations can be enjoyed here and now. I note, however, that the chapter about money, "A Sudden Interest in the Future of Social Security," comes short of discussing the consolations of material poverty but rather turns to a lengthy discussion of Jesus' parable of the fool who built bigger and bigger barns, to his spiritual peril.
In contrast, a few chapters include no scriptural reflection. Such is the case with a chapter on the limitations of responsibility, "The World Didn't Even Notice When I Quit Trying to Save It," which lays out a life-cycle paradox: "To grow in maturity we must accept responsibility." But eventually "to maintain the trajectory of growth, we have to let go of responsibility as completely as we had to accept it in the first place," meaning "we must acquiesce to the limitations of what we can do." We cannot save the world or even, ultimately, our children, as we are not God.
It's sobering that a man not yet fifty-five has so well identified and from personal experience discussed losses or restrictions that are mostly age-related, as if the golden decade is more related to autumnal aspen leaves than to bright sun on a clear day.
On the other hand, it's refreshing to find a book written with a strong and personal male voice --- it might even be considered a man's book --- that is utterly relevant to professional women and probably all women. For baby boomers of both genders, there's great material here for discussion. McCullough might well have included questions to provoke and focus such group discussion or personal reflection.
--- Reviewed by Evelyn Bence
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