If anyone asked me to describe my perfectionist goals and aspirations (oddly enough, no one ever has), I would direct them to two movie clips. These clips encapsulate everything my perfectionist self has ever wanted to be, and they also show how shallow and ridiculous perfectionism is.
The first is from Anne of Green Gables. Anne is getting ready to give her recitation of “The Highwayman” in front of a bunch of people, and she’s worried that she will fail. Diana comforts her by saying, “You’ve never failed at anything, Anne Shirley. Go on.”
Oh, what bliss! To have never failed at anything, and to have people tell you so! I have a hard time imagining a more glorious moment. When I watched this as a child I wanted to be Anne so badly. Maybe, if I worked really hard and never failed again, someday someone would say that to me.
Never mind that what Diana said is patently false. Up to this point in the movie, Anne has failed to keep her temper with Mrs. Lynde, failed to forgive Gilbert and recognize him for the babe that he is, failed to dye her hair black, failed to walk the ridgepole of Moody’s kitchen roof, and failed to see that puffed sleeves are a hideous fashion offense.* She is a girl who is absolutely famous for getting into scrapes and yet here Diana is saying she never fails.
I’m sure the scriptwriters didn’t think about this line too long (it's just a thing to say to buck up a flagging spirit), but it goes against the spirit of the entire Anne universe. The Anne stories are all about a girl who is not perfect but who loves much and is much beloved. But I was more attracted to that clear moment of false perfection than to the whole drama of love and failure and forgiveness and reconciliation.
There’s a similar line in the classic film Two Weeks’ Notice. George Wade (Hugh Grant) thinks that Lucy Kelson (Sandra Bullock) is too uptight and perfectionistic. They’re discussing her childhood, and she says that her mother was always the voice in her head, driving her to work harder and do better. One of things her mother told her was “Never settle for a B instead of an A on a test.” George asks, incredulous, “You once got a B?” Lucy answers, “Hypothetically speaking.”
I so badly wanted to be Lucy, to be able to smile nonchalantly and essentially say, “Me, be less than perfect? That would only happen hypothetically, of course.” Unfortunately, I had gotten Bs, so my dream was over before it could start. And while Lucy may have gotten a 4.0 throughout her entire education, she still has her issues, as the movie clearly shows. She’s “a compulsive eater who’s incapable of falling in love.” She finds redemption by learning to relax and loosen up and acknowledge that she can be too demanding.
But that is the thing. I do not want redemption; I want to have never failed in the first place. I long to be Anne and Lucy in these scenes because they present an illusion of perfection. Even though that illusion is belied by everything else that happens in the films, I still long for it. This might be a healthy desire if I were Eve in the garden of Eden. But living, as I do, in a fallen world, as a fallen person, to reject redemption is to reject any hope for life at all.
I know that in my head, but I am still working on embracing it in my heart. Those shiny (even if limited and fraudulent) dreams of perfection still lure me, even though I know life is far better, if much messier, without them. But deep down, I know I really want to be the Anne who has failed but who is loved and the Lucy who learns to value love more than her accomplishments.
*To be fair, she does succeed at a lot of things: winning the three-legged race, spelling chrysanthEmum, tying for first place honors in the term finals, qualifying for the extra class to prepare for Queens, and saving the Barry baby from the croup, among other noble endeavors. She also succeeds at her recitation, as clearly demonstrated by Gilbert's applause/head bobble:
AND A BONUS OR TWO! Here is what it would have looked like if Diana (Schuyler Grant) had been Anne.
And here is Glennon Doyle Melton summing up this whole blog post in one beautiful tweet:
You can be perfect or real. You can be admired or loved. Real and loved is better.— Glennon Doyle Melton (@Momastery) June 8, 2015