A tyrannical statement we’ve heard as children, and said as exasperated parents: If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
Which means we might never learn or do new things, for who has margin for one additional thing?
In fact, the opposite is true…anything worth doing is worth doing badly.
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I discovered this while learning German over the last three years. The pace at the beginning was too fast, so I did not master the absolutely essential foundational grammar, which meant that, for the first two years, I was staggering and stumbling through lessons, which were making me sad. But I prayed about it after each year, and felt clearly, for unclear reasons, that I should continue–and now, in my third year of the six year course, I have a gifted, intelligent teacher who loves language, who speaks slowly, clearly, expressively, and, most importantly, interestingly—and, when I understand her anecdotes, I experience that flash of pure joy as when, after careening and tottering, you are off, skating on ice effortlessly, a joy that would not exist if learning had not been so hard.
When I was an undergraduate at Oxford, I remember the critic Hugh Kenner saying that there was no point in learning foreign languages since we would never learn them well enough to understand the poetry. Well, he’s wrong! It enhances travel to know enough of the language to understand the conversations around you, to communicate in, to be able to read the newspapers, absorbing a different viewpoint, and world-view. There is joy in reading, speaking, and understanding a little German, or Hindi, or French, or English to name some of my languages, or Greek, which I have a reading knowledge of. I listen to an episode of an interesting German podcast every day, Slow German, and, oddly enough, it is among the most enjoyable things in my day.
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In fact, the only way we can begin to shift our lives, and to change the multiple short stories our lives are telling, is to begin doing the good things we want to do…even if badly. “Whatever you want to do or dream you can, begin it,” Goethe. Just five minutes a day of it, if necessary.
I love the Japanese strategy of Kaizen—making major life changes through infinitesimal adjustments. Want to read more. Read a little before you sleep. A little with your morning coffee. A little after dinner. See how long you take to read that book. Set a goal to finish the next book in one day less (which, with the dint of another mini reading or listening session, you can) and so on, until you are reading, say, 52 books a year, which will change your thinking, inner life, and appreciation of life. It’s better to read a little—for the magic carpet ride, interior thinking space, and quiet that it gives you than not to read at all.
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After I had an evil illness, and declined chemotherapy three years ago, I read that walking four miles a day would change one’s life, and perhaps save it. Well, I almost built up to that a couple of times, but not quite. However, a short walk is better than no walk; a few yoga stretches is better than the one hour of yoga I aspire to (but never do, except in a class); lifting a few weights is not as good as the recommended 20 minutes of weights, but better than nothing. “Do not despise the day of small things.” I am not physically strong, sadly, but am committed to becoming stronger and fitter for that greatly increases my enjoyment of life.
Gardening brings me a good deal of joy, aesthetic pleasure, serenity, and thinking time, and also keeps me more flexible and limber. Every year, however, I return from our long summer holiday of two or three weeks, and find that my large garden of an acre and a half is a wilderness, and the pruning and dead-heading and weeding seems so overwhelming that I barely go out again until spring, when nature itself wants to drag you out, and then it’s so much work, and we wonder why we hadn’t put our garden to bed. I’ve decided to do a little and often rather than an hour spring and summer… and then nothing.
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I would love to have a zen interior, a decluttered house, which I am closer to by dint of putting everything I don’t need in the garage, or barn, or detached study, which are now getting cluttered. It feels too soul-killing to take a whole hour to declutter, so I am doing it in tiny increments, 15 minutes a day, which doesn’t seem enough, but a whole lot better than not doing it at all. I’ve read that people hesitate to embark on minimalism because they think they’ll have to shed their most precious thing…which is a poor reason for not shedding your most junky thing.
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The ultimate thing that’s worth doing badly, of course, is being a Christian, and pretty much everyone who’s not Jesus, does it imperfectly (some more imperfectly than others!)
However, it is an honour even to limp in the ways of the brilliant and astonishing Jesus. Because we think we fear doing the hardest thing for us–loving that dark, critical demanding person we find impossible; giving of our time to everyone who demands it of us–does not mean we should not continually travel towards the light, and attempt to conform our lives to Jesus’ teaching in micro-increments.
Following Christ (badly!!) has been the greatest honour and excitement of my life. When I am in a funk, when I feel confused, or angry, or out of sorts, or a teeny bit crazy, I pick up a Gospel, and read it fast, and his counter-intuitive words speak to me. Take up my cross, accept the difficulties of growth, or I am not worthy of him. The democratic life of continual prayer is open to everyone. Trust. “Don’t worry about anything at all.” Jesus’s teachings are like a diamond; there are always new glints.
I am invariably energised again by the call to follow Christ. In tiny steps, for this five minutes, this hour, this day. To think not only of myself, but of the others in my life, and of Him.
The Gospels: treasure you pick up when you are lost, a golden compass, guiding you to the right path, and since your trajectory is more important than where you are, it is better to take a few steps towards Christ, to crawl on the journey than never begin it, but drift towards the dark and hopeless regions of the Slough of Despondency, Doubting Castle, and Vanity Fair.
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And HAPPY NEW YEAR, friends,
Image Credit: The wonderful Edward Knippers, on wrestling towards the light