In defense of perfectionism

imagesIn these busy-ness hangover days post-Advent/Christmas, I can finally undo my symbolic top button and let the layers of fatigue – built up over weeks of ridiculous work schedules – begin to flake away. It’s surprising just how exhausted one can become doing things one loves to do. It is equally alarming how many hours it is possible to clock in pursuit of what one believes to be satisfaction of job demands when the truth is far more complicated than that.

In my present fog of lassitude I at least have the presence of mind to bring a few considerations to the page since, in so doing, I am led to consider more deeply my calling to this anomalous gig.

December. With nervous sighs and low-decibel groans I prepare for it every year. Advent candle-lighters, extra scripture readers, extra rehearsals for extra ensembles on extra days, Christmas concert with the accompanying P.R., advertising and follow-up, children’s and youth Christmas presentations, pre-school Christmas parties requiring musical and technical support, sick soloists, regular Sunday worship planning mindful of exhausted musicians, Christmas Eve candlelight and carols (2 Traditional, 1 Celtic) that required dozens of arrangements, sketching out post-Christmas services easily executable enough for a skeleton crew of volunteers not still on vacation where I will be once all of the above is neatly tied up. Oh, and a few scattered, but nervous moments spent nodding your head in the direction of those with whom you live and for whom you do all of the above.

For that rare reader not already painfully aware of the fact, I am a local church music director. It is a career I’ve pursued, faithfully for the most part, for much of my adult life. And, were it not for this job I do, I struggle to see any another scenario in which a complicated, non-risk-taking, overly worried, perfectionist, artsy-fartsy like me might even make a living, let alone a relatively stable one. The uneasy combination of squishy self-confidence issues with rabid artistic needs make for poor bedfellows. Translation: I’m not good at much else.

Christmas Eve 2014
Christmas Eve Celtic candlelight service, 2014

Frustratingly, after all these years, I’ve never even come close to mastering the slippery skills generally considered normal, advisable even, for those in my craft: prioritization, time management, delegation, and especially unseen pitfalls prediction – viz a viz, troubleshooting. Make no mistake, when a local church comes looking for jaw-dropping artistic talent (that’s how we market ourselves) to bless the flock and fill the pews, they’re often after a glorified music secretary who happens to sing or play instruments. Make the music trains run on time and make sure my kids are getting free music lessons. One can be the best musician ever heard. But, forget too many clerical details too often and it becomes quickly apparent how “stable” the job really is. It’s the comfort of a well-oiled machine with better than average music that maintains a level of constituent satisfaction, and puts food on our table.

But alas, I wax cynical. It is the tiredness talking. I’ve asked frequently and loudly of God and those close to me, why is someone like me even called to work in a local church? I’ve almost always felt more comfortable anywhere but there. I’m rough around the edges at the best of times and can guarantee inopportunely-timed, off-color humor, and promise at least one offended person within half an hour of meeting me. My job is “Christian music” (whatever THAT is) and you couldn’t pay me enough to listen to it on the radio. I doubt I could name the top five Christian artists right now and haven’t darkened the door of *gasp* a “Christian bookstore” (again, unsure as to the meaning of that) for more years than I can count.

And yet, here I am. Any whining I do surrounding my detail heavy job is generally self-induced. Why? you ask.

An attempted explanation: Probably for good reason perfectionism gets a bad rap these days. Under church roofs it has led to lonely, broken, discouraged souls. People like me, in our rabid pursuit of the perfect performance of the carefully chosen song at the pristine moment in a stellar setting, have often left, burned out and bitter because of it. Those we sometimes ride like donkeys to help us provide the aforementioned often leave for similar reasons, blaming us on the way out (justifiable in most cases).

But, beside its potential for damage, it has also led to some of the world’s most stellar, awe-inspiring art. Those artists credited, directly or indirectly, with everyone else’s inspiration weren’t necessarily those who got the trophy just for showing up or sat in kumbaya drum circles (neither of which are problematic on their own!). Their music is great because it had to be. The inner compulsion, dare I say divine imperative, to produce the highest achievable work to present to the High and Lofty One, asks for nothing less. I can hardly imagine Bach having a lot of B-list instrumentalists in his sacred ensembles. His relentless pursuit of the perfect music for the perfect occasion probably made him many enemies.

But it also made him great.

I am now convinced that the very day I succumb to mastery in the lesser skills of prioritization, time management, leadership team coagulation, etc., will be the same day my muse will flee. My perfectionism has forced me down some dark hallways. It has left me bedraggled, barely able to stand at times. It has forced me to be tweaking song arrangements at 1:00 am…while on vacation. It has taken many hostages. It has kicked my ass, and others’ as well, in pursuit of some crazy ideal, held aloft in my own prideful head. But, in pursuit of the most beautiful art possible wrapped in the most transforming theology possible, that same pride disallows overly simplistic, soul-less, derivative, mass-producible pablum. Then, I’ll be only too happy to say, along with so many other dear souls, “with or without frappe?”

So then, I am tired primarily because I’ve been chasing whatever ideal my own perfectionism has placed before me. This aging treadmill donkey hasn’t quite nabbed his carrot, adangle before his hungry mouth and crossed eyes. If I ever do actually reach said carrot, it will be the day I am discovered, dead, in a pool of my own anxiety. And, after all is said and done, my choir still loves me.

And that alone is worth it.

One picture found here, the other is credited to Piper Renee-Richmond, who sings in my band and was in fact doing so at the time!

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