Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Black Swan

"Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." Matt. 5:48

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) wants to be absolutely perfect. From her childhood days, she has dreamed of being the perfect ballerina - and as the film begins, Nina is on the precipice of that dream as she competes for the role of the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.

Trained from an early age by a demanding mother (Barbara Hershey), Nina has always believed that true success comes from perfecting every move, every turn, and every aspect of her on-stage performance; however, the director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) tells her that, in order to play the Queen's duality of the White Swan and the Black Swan, she must let loose and allow her darker side to emerge.

Black Swan, then, is the story of Nina's new obsession - to achieve a new kind of perfection, even if she has to battle and destroy her own self to get there.

Movie audiences may be surprised by the intensity and bitter competition that exists in such a graceful art form like ballet. This film highlights the backstage drama and internal angst that ballerinas can endure - and the lengths to which some dancers might go to get the part, impress the critics, or leave a legacy.

But the quest for perfection is not limited to ballet. More and more people, myself included, are driven (some might say "haunted") by a need to get everything just right - at work, at home, in relationships, or in life in general. These individuals, and again I am speaking from my own personal experience, are never satisfied with mediocrity and constantly strive towards something greater, something better, something truly incredible.

Even Jesus himself supposedly presented us with the challenge to achieve perfection when he declared in the Sermon on the Mount, "Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt. 5:48).

In Black Swan, Nina sees the tragedy of imperfection in the persona's of her mother, who dropped out of ballet in order to raise her daughter, and the outgoing company lead Beth (Winona Ryder) who attempts suicide in a frustrated sense of humiliation. She also begins to ramp up her drive when another dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) seems to perfectly embody the role of the Black Swan.

With a fear of an imperfect future and the competition from Lily in front of her, Nina decides to go headlong into her quest to perfect the part, to become the best Swan Queen ever.

But again, going back to Jesus' notion of perfection in the Scriptures, we find that we are not actually called to be perfect by the world's standards or for personal glory. Teleioi, the Greek word Jesus uses in Matt. 5:48 (which we translate as "perfect"), can also mean a complete maturity. And in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, it comes at the exact dividing line between Jesus' social and personal instructions. It immediately follows the command to love everyone, including enemies, and immediately precedes the command to selflessly serve and give to others without reward.

So perfection by God's standards means an unmatched maturity of love and selfless giving, just as God is unrivaled in his compassion and generosity.

If there is something to be obsessed with in our lives, it is this. Perfection by the world's standards can never actually be achieved. We may never have the perfect job, bake the perfect cake, golf the perfect game, be a part of the perfect family, or become the perfect ballerina.

Nina thought she was achieving perfection in her life, but in reality, she struggled with a relationship with her mother, was distant and removed from her peers in the ballet company, and physically abused her own self. This is not the perfection God demands. Nina's is a tragic story of a young woman who took her drive for worldly perfection to the extreme.

This is a cautionary tale for all of us who drive ourselves mad in an attempt to make everything just right in certain areas - only to fall short of divine perfection in other areas, namely in our relationships with family, friends, and even our enemies, in our service to and selflessness in the world, in our care for our health and well-being, and in our connection and communication with the God who loves and cares for us, despite all our imperfections.

Let us pray, therefore, to be perfect in love, compassion, and service, and to be more accepting of our own imperfections in the other areas of our lives.

Postscript: In order to play the role of the Black Swan in the ballet, Nina was asked to let loose. Unfortunately she took this to the extreme. She fell quickly into darkness and immorality, The director was asking for balance - not to be engulfed 100% in both sides.

As Christians, we are also challenged to bring balance to our lives, to our world, and to our faith - to be, as Jesus once said, "in the world, but not of the world." It can be difficult to balance these two sides, but a faith founded on the Incarnation demands that we bring the Gospel into everyday life, even in its darkest aspects. And this requires that we step out into the world without being consumed by it.

There have been times when Christians have brought the darkness of the world back to the Church from which they were sent. In a quest for their own perfection and for a cleansing of the Church, they can bring hatred, bigotry, a lack of compassion, and a culture of fear into the sacredness of faith. Instead, like Nina, we are called to balance - to to "in the world, but not of the world." And taking a cue from the perfection Jesus demands in the Scriptures, we are to be the most loving, most compassionate, and most self-giving Christians we can be. Once we work towards that goal, we can truly be members of a faith founded in the Incarnation.

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