Fallibility: The Value of Imperfection

The capacities of an abundant community are the core elements that need to be visible and manifest to create functional families and neighborhoods. One of the capacities of an abundant community is the ability to accept people’s fallibility.


A conspicuous capacity of abundant communities is their tolerance, their acceptance of human limitations. In community space, people’s limitations are intertwined with their gifts. When a neurotic person comes into the room, they create space for all others who are neurotic or anxious or angry. In the system space, there is no room for what is wrong with us—except in the privacy of the annual performance review. It is secret, it goes in your file, you sign off on it, and it affects your pay. Other than that, it’s “Keep your sunny side up.”

Community is about accepting people’s fallibility. It requires the willingness to live with people’s imperfections, more than being willing to live with their transgressions, which call for forgiveness, or not. Human shortcomings have more of an afterlife than their sins.

Fallibility is part of the human condition, and therefore a reality of the relational world. This is a key distinction we make here. Institutions are not good at surcease and sorrow, the whole tragic and sad part of life. They do not know what to do, because institutions are designed to last forever. They act as if they are immortal, which they are not. So failure, sorrow, and frailty threaten their mythology of eternal life.

Communities recognize and accept fallibility, and do not try to change it. When we view fallibility as a condition of being human, we see it is within the capacity of the family and neighborhood to deal with the condition and even see the gift in it. 

Communities recognize and accept fallibility, and do not try to change it. So we will pray for you, we will do rituals. We have cultural ways of dealing with fallibilities and tragedies. The system way is to try to fix it; the community way is to memorialize it.

This relates to the distinction we make between a condition and a problem. As soon as we call something a problem, it begs for a solution and we start shopping. When we view fallibility as a condition of being human, we see it is within the capacity of the family and neighborhood to deal with the condition and even see the gift in it.

This is the gift to us of the developmentally disabled. Their condition is a fact of life; it does not diminish them. Nor do our failures diminish us. Our frailties are not who we are. In fact, they show that we are whole. That we are human. We can be whole in community life, but in systems life we can only be half. The other half is the stuff we leave off of our resume.

To elaborate on this, a distinction has evolved in the social service world between how to approach people who are developmentally disabled and how to approach people who are mentally ill. Our society has tended to be more supportive of the developmentally disabled than of the mentally ill. This is because everybody believes that a developmentally disabled person’s disability is something they can do nothing about. A mentally ill person, on the other hand, is still viewed within a medical model. It is a disease. It is curable. If only we had the right drugs, if only she would take her meds, the challenge would disappear. Systems still dominate the world of the mentally ill. The developmentally disabled world is moving away from systems back into the community.

An example of how abundant communities can show acceptance of human fallibility comes from Vancouver, British Columbia. The mayor advocated for and ran on a platform of dealing with the city’s drug problem by using a policy of “harm reduction” rather than correction or cure. Imagine that. He won.

The premise was that drug users are people who are half full and half empty. The half-empty part we call addiction. We have tried to deal with the half-emptiness in two ways. The first is to correct them—put them in jail. The other way is to cure them; we put them in treatment centers. The research shows that neither approach works very well. But because of our judgment about addiction, drug users become criminalized or medicalized. Both strategies are expensive and have produced large industries of professional services and buildings to house them. None of it has achieved much success in reducing addiction, reducing trouble in the community, or improving the lives of addicts.

The mayor advocated a third way, harm reduction. His essential message was, “Most people who are drug addicts are going to die of it, no matter what we do. If we want to do something about them, we can do more of what doesn’t work—cure or correct—and it still won’t work. Or we can take them where they are and ask, How can we get them in a life that will damage us the least, and them the least?”

There now exists the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.  It is a community development group. These people, who became free of being cured or corrected, say, “Our lives have been surrounded by people who always saw us as empty. How we can actually contribute something.”

The woman who was the chair of the group, after hearing how impressed we were by what she was working on, said, “Now don’t get romantic about this. Every person in that room is going to die of drugs. And we are all going to die a lot quicker than you are. But the one thing this harm reduction does is not harm reduction. It allows us, for the rest of our lives, to contribute something. That is what you see. Our hidden gifts revealed.”

How better to spend your final days than to be free to give your gifts?


Excerpt adapted from “Community Abundance in Action,” in The Abundant Community, pp 88-90.

Home page photo: josephpetepickle 

About the Lead Author

John McKnight
John McKnight
John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. He is the coauthor of Building Communities from the Inside Out and the author of The Careless Society. He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development.

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