“You are my greatest adventure, and I almost missed it.” – Mr. Incredible, from The Incredibles
I just read an article about Jerry Seinfeld in the New York Times, and the incredible amount of time and craftsmanship that he applies towards comedy. At one point, he explains why he never uses crude language in his shows, which was something that I had always wondered about. I just assumed that it was a religious or moral choice that he had made, that he wanted to set a good example for children or something to that effect. But instead, his explanation is not one based on morality but excellence, that Seinfeld thinks that the use of curse words in comedy is a crutch of sorts, a lazy way to elicit easy and cheap laughs, a crutch he refuses to use because it would compromise his comedy. In some way, Jerry Seinfeld is a comedian-samurai of sorts, a man dedicated to the quest of perfecting his craft not for any other end than to perfect that craft.
A documentary called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” describes a sushi chef in Japan who possesses the exact same mentality. He has no desire for fame or fortune, only to make the best sushi ever. Many in Japan believe that once Jiro passes away, there will be no one alive in the world who will be able to provide sushi on the level that he does, even his own sons, who have trained under him for decades. The title of the documentary mirrors one point in the story, where Jiro describes that his mind is so completely devoted to his craft that he often dreams of sushi, as if that part of his life is not content to being contained within waking hours only.
I have to admit that I am absolutely inspired by such a mentality, and dream of being a samurai/something. But I know deep in my heart that I never could, both because of personality and circumstance. I have always been a person who is interested in many things, a jack of all trades, but a master of none. I like to write, but do not consider myself a great writer by any means. I preach, but do so out of necessity, not because I feel a natural affinity or aptitude in it. I can play guitar, but know that I will probably never get any better than I am now, my skill locked at the intermediate level that I had hit in college. My mind is too easily distracted and too broadly focused to ever commit itself so fully to one single trade.
But there is another reason why I know I could never commit myself to such an attitude, and that is the effects it would have on my family. In both situations with Jerry and Jiro, the writers/biographers note the effects that their perfectionism had on their families and their children. Jiro’s two sons so obviously labor under their father’s shadow, in awe of him and his skill, and yet distanced from him for the same reason. Jerry Seinfeld has three children who he consciously spends time apart from, for fear of losing his focus and skill with comedy. Perfection seems to tolerate no competitors in life. And it is for this reason that I know I could never be like these men, because if anything, my attitude is the complete opposite. Whenever I travel or do anything that separates me from my family for any length of time, the only thing I can think of from the moment that I leave is what I’m missing out on, and returning home. And so evaporated my closet dream of being a samurai/anything.
Until today, when I experienced a revelation of sorts. I realized that there is something that I want to be excellent at, perfect even, something that I am already love deeply and am magnetically drawn to: being a husband and father.
That sounds odd at some level, the desire to be a perfect father and husband. I think that men are naturally geared towards excellence, especially on a competitive level, but that powerful drive is never applied to their roles at home. You see, true men are not supposed to dream of being ideal spouses or parents, but to be the best in their careers, or in sports, or maybe even hocking loogies across parking lots. Those are the endeavors to which men are supposed to pursue total excellence, at least from a cultural perspective. In my 30-some years of life, no one has ever challenged me to be the absolute best father I could be, just to be a “good” one. And no one ever bothered to define “good” either, leaving the term open to lazy interpretation. To strive to be the perfect husband or father seems somehow ill-fitting, or even effeminate in some way, not befitting a true manly man of manliness.
I ran into a trivial and funny form of this mentality a few months ago. In my regular rounds to thrift stores in the area, I found a beat up toy from Disney’s Tinkerbell movie, a fairy with no dress or accessories and tangled up hair. But I knew that my daughters would love to have that toy, so I brought it home and spent excessive amounts of time getting it ready for them. I fixed a broken wing, braided her hair, made a new dress and belt out of felt and string, and even made little white pumps by dipping her feet into white paint. And being incredibly proud of myself, I posted a pic on my Facebook page. Most of the comments were complimentary, but a few (from very good friends whom I love) seemed to take a good-humored jab at my masculinity, and the odd fact that a grown man would spend time making doll clothes for his daughter’s toy. I have to admit that I felt more than a little self-conscious after that, and wondered if it was somehow inappropriate of me to compromise my enormous sense of masculinity in order to make my daughter happy.
But I learned something from the examples of Jiro and Jerry. On some level, you have to admit that it’s strange that anyone would take such time and effort to perfect crafts like comedy and sushi, things that seem fairly inconsequential. Jerry Seinfeld himself openly admits that what he does for a living is thoroughly silly. Comedians are just joke-tellers, and sushi makers are just chefs – it seems a bit incongruous to apply such a idealistic and disciplined mentality to such common ends. But I realize now that these men do not pursue their craft because of the benefit that it pays to others, or the cultural esteem they receive as a result, although that is surely part of what they do. They pursue their respective crafts with such fervor mainly because they passionately love the craft itself, and perfection is the goal. I would imagine that they would make sushi and jokes even if they got paid nothing to do it, and no one ever recognized them for their efforts.
And this gave me some encouragement, this revelation that it does not really matter how much others value what you do, as long as YOU love it and are committed to improving upon it until it can be improved no more. After all, if the mentality of complete excellence and perfection can applied to the preparation of jokes, or to the preparation of raw fish and seafood, then surely it can be applied to fatherhood, and to husbandry (not animal, but domestic). And what should I care if someone raises their eyebrow at me in my pursuit of excellence?
And so I have discovered my New Year’s Resolution, one week early – I want to devote myself with complete discipline and focus on being the absolute best father and husband I can be. No one will understand my daughters and their cadence of walk and speech better than I. No one will be able to talk my son out of a tantrum with such skill. No one will be able to make my wife feel confident and stronger that I will be able to. And this is not going to happen through hope and generic effort – enormous amounts of focus and effort have to be bent towards this end. My actions and thoughts have to be scrutinized, my words chosen with care, my ability to observe sharpened. Becoming such a father will require maximum effort, and minute attention to detail. But with the exception of God Himself, no one will ever be better at being a father to my children, or a husband to my wife. And then the following year…I want to be even better.
But you might ask, what of the other pursuits of my life? What of pastoring, and preaching, these hefty and eternal responsibilities? What of writing, and my dream of one day being published? I have thought of that, and the sacrifices that would have to be made to other parts of my life. I fully intend to be good at those things, maybe even great – I mean, I’m writing this post, aren’t I?? But, in the end, they are not my life’s great pursuit. That is my family, the most important worldly calling that God has called me to. After all, people will have many pastors in the course of their life, and will read many writers in that time as well. But my family has only one father, and that is me. And because of that, I carry the weighty responsibility to be the best one that I can be. And I will not spend decades searching for a great calling while it stares me in the face every day.
**Postscript – good Christian readers, in case you are wondering why I don’t consider the pursuit of Christ my single greatest personal goal: in my mind, the pursuit of Christ is not a single activity or discipline, but all the elements of one’s life lived to the glory of God. And so the desire to be excellent in some aspect of life need not be mutually exclusive with a life of total worship, but is an expression of it. Just ask Bach.**