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Beyond the Lone Islands

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Things Worth Doing Badly

In my Quotation of the Week post this week (13/2010), I gave you "two for one", plus a picture.

"If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."
~ G.K. Chesterton ~


"Failure after long perseverance is much grander
than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure."
~ George Eliot ~

Chesterton has been called "Master of Paradoxes", and I guess this is a typical example. When I first read it, I was not sure what he really meant, or if I agreed. I found the statement in some famous quotations collection, without its original context. But I wrote it down in my notebook, and have returned to ponder upon it now and then.

More recently, I came across the George Eliot quote, and it reminded me of Chesterton's words. In my mind, they connected. So that's why I put both together in my post, and also added a picture to give you a clue to my thinking: A one-year-old (or so) eagerly striving to walk upright.

With a lot of things in life, you don't know until you try, how far you'll be able to go. Some things we might never excel at, but we still find them worth doing. For example: Very few people get so good at running that they win the Olympics. But in some situations it can make you happy just to be able to get out of bed and walk to the bathroom without help. (If you've ever had to spend even just a couple of days in hospital not being able to or allowed to do that, you'll know what I mean).

While out walking today, I kept thinking about this. What things in my life have I found "worth doing badly"? In my mind I went back nine years, to the first years after I had had a kind of accident at work which was the root of still lingering pain problems. I'm not going into the details of that, just using it to make a point: To suddenly find yourself no longer able to use your right arm in all the ways you have previously been taking for granted, really forces you to ask yourself some serious questions about what kind of things are worth doing badly.

Some of the answers I already knew, from working for a while in an occupational therapy unit in the hospital. (As secretary; but you pick up the ideas.) In most of us, it is really very deeply rooted that we want to be able to do certain things without help: Take a shower, brush your teeth, get dressed, eat, go for a walk, do a bit of shopping - all the ordinary little things like that, which - when healthy and not in pain - we usually just do without giving them much thought.

If you'd like to try an experiment, just tie your right arm (or your left, if you're left-handed) up in a shawl or something for an hour, and try (with just the free hand, and without cheating) to do things like make the bed, put on your trousers, make a sandwich, comb your hair, tie your shoelaces, write your name, turn a key in the lock... You'll soon get the picture!

Besides the necessary householdy stuff, here are three things I really found worth doing, even if I could only do them badly.

1/ Go out for a walk. There were times when I felt like I was balancing my head on top of one painful nerve, and each step shot an additional wave of pain up my neck. But I kept saying to myself that even five minutes is better (from exercise point of view) than not going out at all.

2/ Read. Even with a holder for the book, with long-lasting neck pains, reading can be quite tiring. But when I've been too tired to turn pages, and fix my eyes on the text, I've listened to audio books. I find good stories a great help to fix my mind on other things than my own worries. (And if I fall asleep, never mind. I'll rewind to somewhere I remember, and start again.)

3/ Write. I think this was perhaps my biggest frustration of all. Giving up "job-writing" was one thing, but private writing as well - that's just too much. Without the computer, what would I have done? My guess is I would probably have kept practising even more on learning to write with my left hand. Over the first few years, I did practise left-hand handwriting quite a lot - as I also practised doing a lot of other things with the left hand, that I used to do with my right. I know that at some point I thought: If I could not use either of my hands, I would probably try using my toes. At my age, I don't think I'd be able to learn that very well - but if there was no other way, I think it might be worth doing badly!

I'm better now than four, six or nine years ago. Some things I find no joy in any more, because I can't do them well enough, or they just tire me out. But other things - are still worth doing, even if "badly"...

Having gone through all that thinking, I felt I had to find out what Chesterton was really talking about. So I found out. (If there is something I've been getting better and better at, it's googling!)

According to the American Chesterton Society  (I didn't know there was such a society, but of course there is) the "worth doing badly" quote is from a book entitled What's Wrong with the World, which was written in 1910. Part Four of the book is entitled, "Education: Or the Mistake about the Child." The famous (and, according to the web page, much abused) line comes up at the end of Chapter 14 of that section. And, according to another quote by Chesterton himself, the words were "said in defence of hobbies and amateurs".

By now I was in research mode, so I went on to find an e-text of What's Wrong with the World (almost any classic 100 years old can be found as e-text), and downloaded that, and looked up the chapter. Which turns out to be about "Folly and Female Education"; and from the viewpoint of 2010 rather than 1910, many arguments might be raised. But laying the modern approach aside, I still think he has a point in his opinion that the world needs "amateurs", not just professionals.

There was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the color of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face. To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education; and closest to the child comes the woman—she understands. To say what she understands is beyond me; save only this, that it is not a solemnity. Rather it is a towering levity, an uproarious amateurishness of the universe, such as we felt when we were little, and would as soon sing as garden, as soon paint as run. To smatter the tongues of men and angels, to dabble in the dreadful sciences, to juggle with pillars and pyramids and toss up the planets like balls, this is that inner audacity and indifference which the human soul, like a conjurer catching oranges, must keep up forever. This is that insanely frivolous thing we call sanity. And the elegant female, drooping her ringlets over her water-colors, knew it and acted on it. She was juggling with frantic and flaming suns. She was maintaining the bold equilibrium of inferiorities which is the most mysterious of superiorities and perhaps the most unattainable. She was maintaining the prime truth of woman, the universal mother: that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.

So, tell me, if you like:
What do you consider worth doing badly (= amateurishly)?


rae said...

This is a WONDERFUL post. It's one I'll marinate on for a while, because it has so many good pieces which make me really think.

Thank you for sharing!

Ginny said...

Chesterton was quite a romantic, wasn't he? Here is what I consider worth doing badly. Singing. Singing through the house all day. Rock songs, hymns, lullabies, the last song I've heard on the radio, show tunes!! Singing to myself or out loud with no music on, and wishing I could remember ALL the words. I'm no great singer, but I would swear that one day it will be found that it's good for your health just to sing. My husband wakes up singing hymns.

GB said...

Now you have me on that one Monica. I do lots of things that Things I'd rather do badly than not at all? They range from cooking to photography. But I question constantly whether I would rather play croquet badly or not at all. Which I suppose begs the qusetion as to whether it's worth doing at all. I'm still not totally convinced by this.

If I practiced law would people be happy if things I thought worth doing (ie giving them advice) were done badly? I think not.

I suppose ultimately the question can be distilled thus: If it is worth considering the validity of this quotation then it's worth doing it badly. That's probably just as well because I'm still not sure that I understand it enough to consider it done well.

DawnTreader said...

Ginny, I think you give a perfect example of something that can give ourselves joy even if we don't excel at it. And Graham, you make a good point that the quote does not apply to professional careers (and I don't think it was Chesterton's intention that it should, that was one of the things that got clear to me when I found the original context).


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