Practice Makes Perfect?

Years ago, I was privileged to teach alongside a gifted educator.   Her experience and insightful perspective on the intricacies of the teaching profession helped me keep my head while I struggled to develop proficiency as an educator.  One of her trademark observations was: “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.”  In order words, the moment a student finally “gets it right” is the moment when practice begins in earnest. Everything before that, although perhaps necessary to achieve the goal, was a lot of fumbling in the dark. In that same vein, practicing the wrong method over and over, is harmful to the learning process in the extreme – not just for fifth graders, but for anyone attempting to master a new skill.  Trying to “unlearn” wrong methods or behaviors can be difficult and frustrating.

The comedy classic Groundhog Day illustrates this premise with superb genius.  It’s hard to believe that this unassuming movie – it opened to only average reviews – continues to be an easily recognizable cultural touchstone today, twenty years after its release. It was released to appreciative though not blockbuster audiences, but like The Princess Bride and other cult classics, it gained greater popularity as time went on.  It is one of those particular types of movies that becomes funnier with each subsequent viewing.

The movie centers around Phil Conners, a man doomed to live the same day over and over until he “gets it right.” It strikes me as more than an odd coincidence to realize the movie inexplicably becomes greater the more one watches.  Maybe I’m over-thinking it, but I can’t deny that I see more substance in the movie now than I ever did twenty years ago.  Perhaps age and experience cause me to watch the movie with different eyes.

One question repeatedly comes to my mind and that is this:  How would I respond if I were offered the same opportunity?  How would I react to a chance to go back to a defining moment in my own lifetime and relive it, indefinitely, until I get it right?  Of course, Phil didn’t have a choice in the matter, but what if I did?  Would I want the opportunity to make things right, the chance to alter my own history?

It sounds tempting.  I can attest to experiences in my own life where I wish I had made a different choice.  Words I wish I had left unspoken, selfish acts I would like to erase, and moments of pure boneheaded embarrassment spring to mind with little prodding.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to return and take a giant eraser to the entire day?

This assumption of course, hinges on the presupposition that I am somehow a more capable, insightful, and altogether better human than Phil Conners.  I mean, no way it would take me that long to “get it right” – would it?

Wrong.  I screw up, a lot.  I mean, basically everyday of my life I say the wrong thing, choose not to offer help or encouragement, or in some way fail to the best “me” I can be.  Most of my mistakes are ones I have made before, repeatedly.  I’m not engaging in “perfect practice.”  In fact, I’m often practicing the wrong way to do something, over and over.

I’m not indulging in self flagellation.  I’m referring to the basic truth:  People ain’t perfect.  And I’m “people,” just like you.

I consider Groundhog Day to be one of the greatest American comedies of all time.  I also consider it to be an intensely spiritual movie.  I can’t watch it without thinking “Poor Phil!” – and I do feel sorry for him, even though he spends days, weeks, and years indulging in the same boorish behavior time and time again.  In fact, he’s a real jackass.

I want to throw my popcorn at the television screen in frustration when he persists in indulging the whims of his self centered nature.  Why does it take him so long to learn?  It’s as if he’s enjoying the interminable purgatory he lives day after day.  Even when he begins doing good, it’s often with an ulterior motive; the good he does will cause personal gain.

Phil is nowhere near perfect practice.  For most of the movie he is struggling to unlearn his past behaviors, behaviors that are second nature to him.  Every time he makes the smallest improvement, he finds a way to mess up again.  The movie highlights specific days of his growth, but the viewer is left with the impression that there are many more days left unseen.  In the DVD commentary, Harold Ramis, who co-authored the script with Danny Rubin, states that the movie covers a time span of at least ten years.  That’s a lot of do-overs, folks.

I thought about Phil Conners today during church.  Every Sunday we begin our worship service with confession and forgiveness.  The words of confession are simple but they sting, a weekly reminder of our human culpability.

Most merciful God,

We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name.   Amen

It’s not always a easy confession to make because I am fully aware of how true it is.  I realize that I – just like that miserable Phil Conners – would need thousands (perhaps millions?) of tries just to get one day right from start to finish.  I always wondered, what happened the next day?  Did he live it perfectly? Or did he need another ten years to get that day “just right?”  Not to be a huge downer, but the odds of getting it perfect, in every way, are slim to none.  He’s a human, just like you and me, and as I already stated, people ain’t perfect.

Church would dreary indeed if the confession ended there.  Thankfully, it’s followed by an announcement of forgiveness.   The pastor speaks these words:

Almighty God, in his mercy, has given his Son to die for us and, for his sake, forgives us all our sins. As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ,and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins,in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Whew!  Good news, indeed.  Unlike Phil, I don’t have to stay trapped in an unforgiving purgatory until I am perfect.  I can receive forgiveness now, even when I don’t deserve it.  That’s grace, and that’s the free gift of God for every human.  Thank God for that!  Who could survive the crushing bondage of being a flawed person trapped in the unforgiving expectation of perfection?  There’s a reason Phil tries repeatedly to kill himself; the futility of a life where you can’t hope to measure up is soul sucking.

I love Groundhog Day, enough to watch it time and again, year after year.  Bill Murray’s trademark sarcasm and wry indifference are the perfect foil to the film’s themes of personal growth and spiritual enlightenment.   Still, I don’t know that I would want to try my own luck at living the perfect day.   Something tells me that it would take far longer than I could ever imagine to achieve perfection.

I’ll live with my mistakes (they are part of who I am, after all), and do my best to make amends whenever possible.  Like Phil, I will keep searching for the right path;  I will keep seeking for meaning and enlightenment.  But when I fall short of perfect  I know exactly what to do:  I’ll go to God and ask for mercy and grace.  With Him, all things are possible.

*This post was inspired by the Daily Prompt.

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