Stain on a White Piece of Cloth

Stain on a White Piece of Cloth January 12, 2018

Stain on a White Piece of Cloth

A stain on a white piece of cloth is the best metaphor for character improvement I have come across. It perfectly describes other people’s reactions when a person is trying to improve.

White Spots on a Dirty Shirt

Let’s take, for example, an alcoholic who has really messed up his life (the equivalent of a dirty shirt).

What happens when he begins to clean up his act, wake up at a reasonable hour, show up for work, and spend time with his kids?

He gets praised.

Why? Because, in comparison with what the alcoholic was used to doing while he was drinking, these behaviors, which most people consider normal, are in fact abnormal. Even minor positive actions are white spots and those white spots become extremely visible on a dirty background.

That’s why people notice. It’s all about context.

Suffering the Opposite Effects

According to this same metaphor, people, who are trying to do good and be good, suffer from the opposite effects. Their remaining stains become painfully obvious.

For example, we see things in the behavior of priests and gurus that we would probably overlook if they were not trying to be good.

If Joe in the mailroom or Anna the executive would display the same behaviors—which we’d consider stainful if a spiritual master did them—we’d think nothing of them. At the most, we would say that they were in a bad mood or something. But we wouldn’t judge Anna and Joe. Why? Because we wouldn’t expect much from them.

Again, it’s all about context.

Different Measuring Sticks

The lower our expectations are, the more we notice the few good deeds that people we expect little of engage in, and the higher our expectations are, the more sensitive we become to few but visible character flaws.

We judge people, such as priests and spiritual teachers, with a different measuring stick than we judge others because we expect more from them. The same goes for personal trainers and nutrition therapists. We can eat chocolate, but they can’t.

Perfection is an Ideal

The real problem with obsessing over stains is that perfection is an ideal, not a reality. People who teach others should probably do most of what they teach but when we try to stick a label of perfection on them we will invariably be disappointed.

I am not encouraging you to listen to complete hypocrites—people who do the opposite in private of what they preach in public—but I am acknowledging that people are people and that we will see stains if we look for them.

To be blunt, only dead people get labels of perfection and holiness because we can no longer see their faults and can instead imagine whatever we want about them.


The essence of this metaphor is that we should aim for progress rather than perfection. No matter how much we ‘clean up’ there will always remain stains (see my article on the paradox of morality).

Furthermore, if we demand perfection from people, we will forever be disappointed. On the other hand, if we accept that all human beings are fallible, we can learn a lot from people who have made an effort to be good but still struggle with themselves. We can train ourselves to focus more on their exemplary (white) areas rather than being caught up in their imperfections (stains).

Gudjon Bergmann
Author & Interfaith Minister

Relevant books:
Premature Holiness (a novel)
Living in the Spirit of Yoga

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