The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr


Exploring Spiritual Formation and Creativity

I’m driving on the highway. It’s the end of a long day, and I’m headed home. It’s the one-year anniversary of dad’s passing. It’s the end of a long day. I’m in the left lane, cruising along at a clip. Ahead of me in the middle lane is a truck. It’s a pickup truck, with a covered bed, and two ladders strapped to a rack on its roof. It’s a work truck.

I don’t like driving behind vehicles that are carrying loads, so I make a plan to pass. As I begin my approach, I see one of the ladders wiggle. Then, as if in slow motion, the ladder slides off the roof of the truck onto the freeway. I’m slowing down, checking my rearview mirror, and trying to dodge the ladder. The ladder that is seemingly floating on the road, sliding this way and that. I’m slowing down, checking my rearview mirror, and trying to dodge the ladder that has floated into the left lane – the lane I’m in. I hit the ladder.

The ladder slides under my car making all kind of crunching sounds. I put on my hazard lights, back up so as not to drag the ladder, and pull over to the side of the road. The truck does the same. I sit in the car. The driver of the truck comes out and clears the ladder from the road. He then approaches my car. I drawn down my window, and they say, “Well, that must have been scary.”

Indeed it was, and there are many miracles to speak of – the fact that the ladder didn’t catch air, staying on the ground; no one else was on the road at the time; we didn’t run over the ladder, just bumped into it; and there didn’t seem to be any damage to the car!

I got out of the car, checked for damage, and then approached the driver of the truck to tell him. In response to the good news, they went on to tell me about how they’ve been working since 5:00am, and how long a day they’ve had, and how they must have just not secured the ladder as well as they thought.

I get back to my car, shaken, and finish the drive home.

The whole drive home I was thinking about the interaction. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. At no time did the driver of the truck ask if I was okay. They assumed it was scary. They took control of the conversation. They defended their mistake, by justifying it on account of their long workday.

I’m going to be blunt. This is personal. I’m tired of people thinking that they have to justify themselves when their actions hurt someone else. It has been a somewhat common occurrence for me that even in the midst of my own pain, someone is defending their action or using my heightened sensitivity as an excuse. Is it so hard to just say I’m sorry?

In the documentary film Identity: The Andrew Nemr Story, I say, “There comes a time when we think we have to justify ourselves, we have to prove our worth or value, and I think that is the first lie.” It might not be the first lie. The first lie might be that self-justification is even possible.

In an achievement-oriented society, self-justification is pervasive. Achievement orientation is a world view that says that you are okay only if you are achieving. Here there is no room for love outside of accomplishing goals. Combine achievement-orientation with the idol of authenticity and you have a recipe for disaster.

Authenticity is the idea that every individual should have all the room they need to be and express their “authentic themselves.” At best the idea of being “authentic” is permission to be honest – to express how we really feel and what we really want, for example. At worst, and as is more often the case, it is the excuse to impose our being on others with disregard for how it might affect them, all under the guise of being authentic.

Achievement orientation says, “You are nothing without your achievement.” Authenticity says, “You are nothing unless you express yourself completely in every interaction.” Both are tools we use to justify ourselves. We may feel the need to justify ourselves if we suffer from a sense of condemnation – some voice, from somewhere, has said you are no good. With these tools, whether to ourselves (our inner critic, maybe), or to others, we can say in return, “I’m good because look at all that I’ve done,” (that’s achievement-orientation) or “I’m good because this is just who I am,” (that’s being authentic). But, can you see the self-centeredness of these tools? Both are derivatives of self-justification.

When we self-justify we are the judge and the jury, the defendant and the plaintiff. We set the law, and then give ourselves a pass, or suffer the condemnation we would inflict on ourselves. When we self-justify we become wrapped up in our own story. Everything is about us – our goals, actions, feelings, even our own judgements. There is little space to care about the well being of others, when we’re having to manage all of that. In this state we can easily become controlling, requiring that we and others act a certain way so that we can feel justified. Frankly, this an exhausting, burdensome, and hurtful way to live.

The reality is that self-justification as a mode is the lie. The more I live, and work, and teach, and coach, the more I am convinced that love is the only power that can fulfill the human need for justification. Not everyone has this need, but for those that do, justification is what makes us sense that we are in the right – on the right side of history, on the right side of a relationship, on the right side of an action. It is what provides freedom from guilt and shame – after all, we are right (and not wrong). The more rigorous our moral code, the more likely a need for justification.

Taken to an extreme, we can become isolated, unloving and unlovable, wrapped up and taken by our own moral code and devices to control. There is little room for any real apology as that would assume guilt, or selfless concern for another person as that assumes shifting our attention from oneself to another. That’s to say nothing of forgiveness or joy.

Another Way

The other way is to give up on trying to justify ourselves. But then how might we be justified? How will we know that we are okay, that we are in the right? The better question is not how, but by whom? True justification comes by relationship, and a relationship of love at that. To undermine achievement orientation the love must come unearned. It has to come before we have done anything to earn it. To undermine the idol of authenticity it must be so dramatic that we become willing to change – to be jarred out of our own self-centeredness. There are examples of this kind of love among people – parents and children, among siblings and good friends, even among strangers. If you’re a movie person, Saving Private Ryan would be a good example of this.

This is the way that Jesus Christ presents. Jesus, in his life, gives us a vision of God that loves, period. God’s love is in a way unescapable, and yet not imposing, as that would not be loving. God’s love comes to us before we have done anything to earn it. On the contrary, it most often comes as we are in the midst of being the horribly imperfect beings we are.

God’s love is also dramatic, even overwhelming. It’s much easier to deal with a love that provides gifts on special days, than a love that says, “I am willing to die for you to prove that my love is real.” What do we even do with that kind of proposition. We recoil from people we think are, “too much.” What about this? I want to propose that the only kind of love that is big, immersive, pervasive enough, to affect every part of our being, every aspect of life, and every perception we might old, is a love that is – only in our own estimation – too much. That said, simple acceptance, surrender to this new and glorious reality, might be a viable option. If it is as good as it seems, why not?

At the very least, we might experience a little less burden and exhaustion from attempting to justify ourselves and manage the entirety of our life.

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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