Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On Being Perfect

I could call this post "Confessions of an Ex-Perfectionist." But that is only the beginning of my concern with the dangers of perfectionism.

When I began teaching, I continued the intense and serious mien of my student days, an approach that made me feel older and more confident than I was.

I was precise in my speech and dress (not that I am now a slob!) to the point of being compulsive and wanted every detail of my life, from the car to the house to my work, to be simply perfect. Errors of any kind were intolerable.

I see my life since then (c. 1970) as a gradual thawing out, a relaxation and mellowing, as I learned to temper carefulness with humor, relying a bit on my old days on the stage and seeing my teaching duties as a performance. Still, I prepared with meticulous care, and still do; I wrote with meticulous care, and still do.

So I can understand when students, colleagues, and friends who are less experienced as writers than I (this includes a few university professors who are experienced teachers but not writers) freeze up when it comes to writing. One of them says to me regularly, "I'd write more if I only knew the rules." (He says the same thing about returning to church, by the way; if he only knew the rules....). But the rules have even less to do with praying than with writing.

What these people and millions who experience writer's block face is a concern with premature editing, prompted by memories of no-nonsense teachers years ago who frowned on ending sentences with a preposition (something up with which I will not put, as some wag said) or beginning one with a conjunction (and, but).

All these shibboleths (meaning #3 in my dictionary: a common belief that ain't really true) should be tossed to the wind; let the mind be free. Write as you talk. Then go back and revise. THEN and only then edit: be concerned with correct spelling and grammar. Otherwise, you put the cart before the horse (a useful cliche) and get tied in knots (another one, also mixing metaphors but who cares?).

If you want to write, write; let others help you with technical questions. If you want to be a singer, sing; hire a voice coach to guide you with technique. Trust your own voice, your own ideas, your own treasury of words stored up in the brain after years of reading and talking.

All of this comes to the fore as I read about the new movie, "Limitless," which concerns a failed writer who takes a pill that allows him to become a wunderkind. He not only knocks out the novel he always wanted to write but reinvents himself.

In a recent NYTimes Magazine article, Carina Chocano talks about this as a way into a bigger issue: the quest for perfectionism in general and how it can drive us nuts. Parents read about Chinese mothers and feel guilty. How often we beat ourselves up for not being more productive, neat, creative, passionate, articulate, mystical or whatever instead of appreciating who we really are.

She reminds us of the Greek idea--"eudaimonia" it is called--that describes the highest human good; and the aim of philosophy was to achieve this state. But it was not personal perfection that the wise old Greeks aimed for. No, it meant human flourishing, the goal and purpose of life was to keep getting better.

No one ever reaches total perfection. And to try to do so is the way to madness.

Chocano finds the quest for self-perfection among the "Real Housewives" awe-inspiring but also terrifying. It's as unnatural, hollow and desperate as the many achievements of the Tiger Mother.

What, you may ask if you are a Christian, about the New Testament? Doesn't Jesus teach: "Be perfect as your heavently Father is perfect"? Yes, but again, he is not thinking of perfect abs, SAT scores, and stock portfolios; he is not talking about making the perfect risotto or even having perfect prayers. He is, I think, talking about being a whole, integrated person, an image of God, one that is always moving toward the highest good. It is like the Greek idea: human flourishing toward a supernatural goal since, as Ignatius of Antioch declared, "The glory of God is man fully alive."

The fact that we never quite make it all the way to perfect fulfillment in this life is only to be expected--no one's perfect, after all--but we keep journeying toward greater degrees of love, understanding, and enlightenment.

And that we enjoy the journey.

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