Lego Movie, Leaf by Niggle, and the Urge to Perfection

“All I’m asking for is total perfection,” instructs President Business pleasantly. When his Lego citizens fail to arrange themselves in the ideal pose, he calls in Micromanagers to do it for them. Then he aims his ultimate weapon, the KraGl, and squirts them with Krazy Glue.

“Everything is awesome!” his Lego people sing, unaware of his plot to freeze them into permanent order.

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I can’t quit singing the song myself, even though I am well-acquainted with the propensity of KraGl to fuse all things, including fingers (excluding the two things that you wanted to stick together in the first place; not that I’m bitter).

“Everything is awesome!” It’s a catchy ideal delivered by a catchy tune. What could satisfy our souls better than total perfection? No more chaos. No more disorder. No more disappointment. No more glued digits.

Complete

Plus, our perfection is God’s idea. “Be holy, for I am holy,” he repeats throughout Leviticus (e.g. 11:44), setting his people apart by forbidding many of their neighbor-nations’ practices. “Be perfect, as you heavenly Father is perfect,” repeats Jesus in Matthew 5:48, urging us on to completion.

As a result, Christians throughout history have believed that a state of not sinning is attainable. Their perspective is called “perfectionism.” They argue that God would not summon us to sanctification if it were impossible to reach in this life. Most recently perfectionist theology can be found in the Holiness, Nazarene, and Pentecostal movements.

Non-perfectionist Christians cite 1 John 1:8–10: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” The sinless life is more complicated than simply not committing sins. Jesus warned against sinful thoughts and attitudes, too (Matt 5:21–28).

And there’s more to perfection than obeyed prohibitions. Paul develops the positive side of our completion, “the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).

Jesus started sinless but still learned obedience, attaining that fullness (Heb 5:8–9). His obedience sanctifies our obedience. When we yearn for perfection, we are longing to “have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

Perfection-ism

This perfection is different than perfectionism, as we usually define it: “a self-destructive and addictive belief system [fueled by] our deep fear of failing, making mistakes, and disappointing others” (Brené Brown, Gifts of Imperfection, 57). Not to mention being forgotten after death.

That was J. R. R. Tolkien’s anxiety as he wrote it in “Leaf by Niggle” (pub. 1944). Tolkien himself was a “niggler,” perfecting the details to such an extent that his larger works usually failed to reach production.

Similarly, his main character Niggle obsesses with painting leaves, but never finishes his tree. Too many other tasks and rules dominate his time, though he attends to them half-heartedly. After he dies, Inspector deems the incomplete tree-painting of no value. The canvasses should have been used to patch the neighbor’s leaky house.

For Niggle, learning to offer his hard work daily instead of hording it until it is fail-proof becomes his purgatory (Tom Shippey, J. R. R. Tolkien, 266–77). As a weekly blogger, I resonate with this analogy.

“Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield,” warns Brown. We use it to protect ourselves from vulnerability, but it ends up gluing us into permanent poses (55–56).

Perfect Enough

Like Legoman Emmett, I am not “the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe, capable of amazing things.” I’m not The Special and I cannot “change everything.”

In the movie, Emmet had a choice. He could obey the Instructions to Fit In, Have Everybody Like Me, and Always Be Happy. Or he could build.

Fleeing from President Business and his KraGl, Emmet builds a double-decker couch, an idea his friends deem “so dumb and pointless that no one would ever think it could possibly be useful.” He hides his friends under the sofa cushions. Sure enough, Business’s henchmen completely overlook it.

They’re saved, which is perfection enough. Everything is awesome!

Sin no more. Learn fullness. Just don’t wait until the KraGl’s off your fingers to start building. (I made that up. But it’s true.)


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