It is pretty common in western society and probably in all human societies to measure success in what we do. If we can mark off boxes—at school, work, home, the gym, in the grocery or fix-it store, in our partnerships, with our children, in our spiritual lives (whatever those are for any of us, individually), as we wind down the whole business and get ready to check out—we often (not always) feel a sense of satisfaction. Some of us are afflicted with perfectionism. As perfection is an asymptotic goal (we may approach it but will never achieve it), having the sense to wrap something up rather than attempt perfection is as good as it gets. I guess there are exceptions to this notion of elusive perfection but let’s not quibble.
“Well, that’s done!” we may remark to ourselves, to our friends and family, to our bosses and co-workers.
What if we measured our lives by what we left incomplete? For writers, musicians, and artists, in particular, I think this might pose a daunting problem. What about the poem that just doesn’t resolve itself in a sensible way, with the correct word or sentence, the apt metaphor on the tip of our “tongues” and not on the page where it needs to be? It’s not going to do any good unsaid, is it? We really mean that if it is on the tip of our tongues it is eluding our conscious minds, burying itself in all that gray stuff and refusing to come when beckoned. Those thoughts are like the just-fed cat who has no reason to visit at the moment, thank you, and you’ll just have to amuse yourself.
The same happens to musicians and lyricists. Nice melody, great chords through the verse, then a giant blank when it comes to the chorus or the bridge. It isn’t a song and it isn’t complete if those bits can’t be summoned. So there you are, with a guitar on your knee or keys at the ready, pen full of ink, a song peering up and daring you to take the next step. And that next step is frozen in mid-air.
I have watched a friend of mine go through this recently in her art. She’ll send photos at various stages. To me, they all look good, interesting, full of thoughts and feelings that would not be in the world except for her efforts. And then… the next version, she says it didn’t come out the way she hoped, that some element was not working or she couldn’t get the colors to play well with each other or there’s something bugging her about the perspective. There’s something that is doing the same thing to her that the unfinished poem or story or song or sonata does to their creators.
It’s a giant pain!
The reason this works out for the best is that creatives, at least, have a subconscious understanding that what they are doing is a process. It is the path that matters. If we set out for a destination, we may arrive somewhere entirely different from where we imagined the path was going. In fact, that is probably the most likely destination—somewhere unimagined. A place we didn’t expect and hadn’t conceived as a possibility. And that’s fine.
Most of us are probably going to measure completeness as a good thing throughout our lives. It might be better if we measured the things we didn’t complete as well. Those might be the precious discoveries, however incomplete and unresolved they might seem to be. The other stuff might just be signposts and mile markers. Done. Complete. Checked off the list. Not as important as the nagging phrase or the chord change or the foreground figures that didn’t work out and haunt us every day. Those may be where we really distinguish our lives from all the others tramping along.