The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Perfection
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Perfection

Exploring Spiritual Formation and Creativity
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In a recent conversation with a friend, I got called out. “Are you a perfectionist?” My guard went up. I’ve had a long-standing relationship with the idea of perfectionism, but hadn’t been called out on it in a long time. I took a breath. I said, “No, I don’t think so, but I do believe perfection is possible, and I know I hold myself to a high standard.” It was an interesting exchange and I’ve been thinking about it since.

I have seen perfectionism (in myself and others) as a pathology that ultimately prevents any kind of action. Instead of productive action there is procrastination out of fear of doing the wrong thing (or just something that is not good enough). Without movement there is the condemnation that comes from not doing anything – and therefore failing at the simple act of doing anything. Everything becomes a mark to be missed. Creativity is squashed, nothing is ever good enough, and the possibility of becoming a curmudgeon is high.

I have also seen (in myself and others) effort put forth toward goodness, pain experienced in failures, and the desire to be better than we think we are. The aim? To be perfect, since that is the highest possible mark.

These two ways seem at odds. Wouldn’t the aim to be perfect lead to perfectionism? What I’ve learned on my journey is what follows.

Be Good

I began tap dancing when I was 3 ½ years old, and immediately understood the idea of being good at something. The teacher would say, “Do this,” and I would do it, and life would be good. I earned the encouragement and praise of my teacher. The encouragement and praise, and the feeling of accomplishment (oh boy is that a good feeling), fueled my engagement. I also understood that I didn’t know everything, and was reliant on my teachers. I wanted to be taught by the best teachers so that I could know what being the best dancer actually meant. I wanted to see the goal and work towards it. I enjoyed dancing, so a challenging goal and the work to get there were couched in joy.

This disposition lasted for years. Through dance school, youth tap ensemble, and being mentored by Savion Glover and Gregory Hines. Whenever I was given the option, I would ask for the more challenging step. Other kids knew it. “Why did you ask Andrew, you knew he’d want the harder step,” they would say. Whenever possible I wanted to show up. My parents were so committed that they would jump and take me to wherever the dancing was happening. It was clear to me that the measure of a dancer in those years was work ethic – showing up and doing the work, regardless of how challenging it was – and I wanted to measure up. Again, it was enjoyable, so the effort I put forth wasn’t felt as work – I wanted it all.

Perfection is Not an Option

I’m working in the studio with Ted Levy, one of the most respected tap dancers of his generation. He has kindly offered to coach me. It is a gift as he doesn’t normally do this. We are a few sessions in when he says, “Perfection is not an option.” I stop in my tracks. This is tap dancing. Every sound has to be hit, and heard, and clear, and precise, and…perfect. He says it again, “Perfection is not an option.” I agree, but I’m not convinced.

It takes me weeks to work out this teaching. I was training to be an improviser, a tap dancer who could dance without preplanning every step. In the context of improvisation aiming for perfection can be debilitating, especially in the beginning. Training as an improviser is training to trust your intuition. To learn to trust your intuition you must first discover what your intuition is. To do that you must have the freedom to see it in action without a particular aim. Just dance.

There is little time for doubt or critique while dancing. At best, when a step we didn’t want comes out of our legs, we might say, “Oh, I wasn’t expecting that.” But even that might be too self-reflective in the moment. After the discovery there is plenty of time and room for observation, critiquing what you don’t want, and encouraging what you do. But you have to dance, first. Eliminating the option of perfection is one way to give yourself permission to just dance.

Be Perfect

I’m sitting around a table at a local brewery. I’m part of a small gathering of people who have committed to journeying through a chunk of the Bible commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. This is one of the few times that Jesus stands and delivers a soliloquy. This isn’t a parable or a prayer, it’s a message. It’s long, lasting three whole chapters (chapters five, six and seven) in the book of Matthew. At the end of chapter five after discussing the highest order of love – that of loving ones enemies – Jesus concludes with the following line:

Be ye therefore perfect, as your Heavenly Father is also perfect.

If there ever was an example of confirmation bias, this was it for me. Finally, someone was telling me to do the thing that I thought I was supposed to be doing all along, and the someone was Jesus Christ no less. When contemplating and meditating on the line I was inspired, encouraged, and enthusiastic, but those sentiments were not shared around the table.

Some folks let the line be and just didn’t know what to make of it. How in the world can I, a mere mortal, be expected to be as perfect as the God of the universe. I can tell you how many times I’ve failed in endeavors to do much less than be perfect. I’m just going to leave this alone.

Others rejected the proposition outright. I don’t think its reasonable for God to ask this of me. He knows me after all, and knows how far away from perfection I am. I’ll just go to work on the other things I think are attainable.

If read as a command, like, “You have to become perfect, like God is perfect,” this might sting of impossibility. The reality is that almost every proposition of the moral life in the Bible – from the Ten Commandments on – is impossible without a life intimately entangled with God. So, being called to be perfect is no different. Without God, impossible. With God, maybe still doubtful in my own mind, but doubt doesn’t preclude possibility. So, possible.

A Way Toward Perfection

How might we pursue perfection while dodging the dangers of becoming a perfectionist? In any pursuit, we will conform to the thing that we set in the center of our lives. If we pursue perfection as the center of our life, we will become a perfectionist. Our life will organize itself around being perfect in all the things we do. In our imperfection our stress will increase as we try to be perfect – fending off any imperfection that might interfere with our pursuit, whether it comes from us or others.

If perfection isn’t the goal, then what is? The goal is to be with someone who will, by the simple act of being with them, make you perfect. Loving people do this to the degree to which their love is perfected. They can change you into a more loving person. If loving people can do this, imagine what God can do. God is love. His love is perfected. That means that by being with him, communing with him, we may stand a chance of becoming more like him.

Setting God at the center of our lives takes our attention off of ourselves. We become immersed in the overwhelming love we fin ourselves receiving in His company. We become more wrapped up in who God is than our achievements or our desire for justification. We become more attentive to the kinds of things that God does than the kinds of things that we have had a history of doing or think we are supposed to be doing. We become more desiring of doing the kinds of things God would want done with God, than anything else, or even achieving God’s own desires on our own. We become the kind of person who without ever having aimed directly for it, begins to act in perfected ways.

Perfection is attainable. It has to be, otherwise we make God a liar. The question is not about perfection, but about life. What does the perfected life look like? How does one get there? And what has to be real about the world for any of this to make sense? If these kinds of questions inspire you, you might consider that Jesus answers all three of these questions when he says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”


If you are an artist, or know of one, who struggles with perfectionism, consider joining me for the next cohort of Spiritual Formation for Artists. The journey is a four session love online dive into how the propositions of life of Jesus Christ interact with the unique life of an artist.


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The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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