Monday, September 16, 2019

Make Your Own Mistakes

This quote from Thomas Merton has been on my mind for a while:
Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet or the particular monk they are intended to be by God. They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives. They waste their years in vain efforts to be some other poet, some other saint...They wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavor to have somebody else's experience or write somebody else's poems.
I recently wrote about how mistakes are part of the learning experience. We may on the one hand learn one less way to do something, and on the other hand we may encounter some other creative path entirely that we didn't see before.

The example that I gave was karate, where a mistake was once described as "being creative."

The thing about karate, however, is that students tend to do things in line, where if you're not immediately in front, you have a chance to observe what others are doing.

For that reason, a common saying in my dojo is "make your own mistakes." In other words, if you just follow what the person in front of you is doing, you'll also end up imitating every mistake that they make. Better to do things the best way you remember or know and be corrected for the ways you may need to improve, rather than just trying to be somebody else.

This, I think, is the same idea that Merton is working with above. So many writers, artists, musicians, speakers, leaders, pastors, and others think that they need to walk lock-step in line with what somebody else has done or is doing. They feel the need to make the same decisions, work the same style, follow the same path, when those decisions, styles, and paths are to be learned from, but not emulated.

(A lot of the Church Growth Industry, for instance, is based on encouraging the emulation of successful people and models. To the detriment of local context, need, and preference.)

Creator Austin Kleon explores this from a different angle. He writes:
When I was in middle school, my English teacher, Mrs. Neff, had us keep composition books, and sometimes she gave us a prompt to answer, but sometimes she simply wrote a poem on the board for us to copy. She never made it explicit exactly what we were supposed to be learning by copying, but now I know. We were absorbing the poem. (I still do this regularly in my notebook.)

Eventually you can’t help but move from copying into something of your own. My 5-year-old is already figuring this out: A few months ago he started recreating Kraftwerk songs in Garageband, but his versions always had something new and interesting in them. It was his inability to perfectly replicate the song that made something interesting happen.
At first, we learn by copying. But even then, we can learn more about our own style. This may come from differentiating between what we really like about another artist, poet, devotee, or whoever, and what we'd prefer to do differently. It may also come from the mistakes we make while copying--our own, not repeating theirs--that may further help us discover ourselves.

All kinds of mistakes and problems become exponentially bigger when we're just following the people in front of us. This may include learning a technique wrong or foregoing our own critical thought to perpetuate what another has done. This may also include much bigger systemic issues where everyone just goes along with accepted norms, to the harm or detriment of others. And this may also include forging off on your own, doing what everyone else thinks is a mistake but is really the morally or technically right thing.

Our own style includes our own mistakes. But risking the former to discover the latter is what we're meant to do.

(image source)

Monday, September 09, 2019

A Chance and a Choice

I recently was at a karate class where a fellow student didn't get a move quite right. One instructor asked the other, "Did she screw up?" And the other responded, "Oh, she was just being creative."

Sometimes--oftentimes--our mistakes can lead to greater creativity. They can certainly show us one less way to do something the correct or most effective way. But they can also open our minds to what we weren't able to see previously.

Plenty of worthwhile things have come from mistakes. Among other examples that could be listed, Post-Its and the teabag--items that many people use every day--began as mistakes.

For many, mistakes are often cause for self-flagellation. We spend time beating ourselves up for getting something wrong, for messing up the technique we're trying to learn, for a draft of some piece of writing or art or music not turning out the way we envisioned.

Our mistakes have plenty to teach us:
In their book Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland tell of a ceramics teacher who announced on the opening day of class that he was dividing the students into two groups. Half were told that they would be graded on quantity. On the final day of term, the teacher said he'd come to class with some scales and weigh the pots they had made. They would get an "A" for 50lb of pots, a "B" for 40lb, and so on. The other half would be graded on quality. They just had to bring along their one, pristine, perfectly designed pot. 
The results were emphatic - the works of highest quality, the most beautiful and creative designs, were all produced by the group graded for quantity. As Bayles and Orland put it: "It seems that while the 'quantity' group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the 'quality' group had sat theorising about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay."
The world is often not looking for "grandiose theories." It's looking for art that can show them something of themselves or the world that either reflects its experience or offers a glimmer of hope. People are seeking signs that they have a chance and a choice; that what is does not always have to be.

Mistakes can show us better ways to do that. They can show us one less way to offer something good and life-giving to troubled souls. Or, alternatively, they can help us discover a way to do it not previously considered.

This blog post is even an example. I started out wanting to use the above blackout poem to say something else about art, and it turned into this. I hope that it's helpful to somebody.

So go forth and let yourself make mistakes. They may lead to exactly what you need to create or do.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

A Prayer for Unity in Our Labor

Faithful God, you have blessed your beloved humanity with a variety of abilities and gifts: some who understand numbers, some who explore their curiosity of how the world works, some with a patient caregiving spirit, some who devote themselves to the development of young minds, some who give themselves to protect others, some who are able to build, and others who are able to bake. This rich diversity of talents makes a living for those who lend them, but it also adds to a way of life for entire neighborhoods, communities, states, and nations. And for that we take time to be thankful, because it is not just we as individuals meant to be self-made for our own ends, but what we can contribute alongside others to make for all.

As we reflect on our individual labor, so do we acknowledge the greater effect to which it adds for the benefit of family, friends, and strangers alike. Each of us, called to our own work, our own responsibilities, our own passions, our own ways of worship and nurturing faith, are nevertheless connected by our membership in your one, single, graced creation. And so we offer what we've received back to you, as we strive toward living out that grace as a people equipped with our own gifts yet unified by what we may join to make together.

O God, we are grateful for opportunities to labor faithfully. By your Spirit, may it be for you and for each other. Amen.

(image source)

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Endgame of Grief

This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.

At the end of Avengers: Infinity War, both the audience and the characters are left in despair and uncertainty.

Thanks to Thanos' successful acquiring of all six Infinity Stones despite the heroes' best efforts to stop him, he goes through with his plan to wipe out half of all life in the universe. This is how Part One of the story finishes, a monumental cliffhanger that leaves everyone with the question of how the remaining characters could possibly undo what has happened.

As everyone expected, Avengers: Endgame picks up where we left off, still in that point of sadness and wondering how things will play out from here. And also as expected, a good portion of the movie answers the question in terms of what great plan they rally around to fix the results of The Snap (or, if you prefer from Spider-Man: Far From Home, The Blip). That answer includes getting the people still alive on board, a lot of time travel, a second Snap/UnBlip, and eventually (of course) a big climactic battle scene.

But there's more that the characters battle through most of the movie than just Thanos. Yes, they do plenty of that as well, but the first third to half of the film they have another adversary, just as formidable: their grief.

At the beginning of Endgame, the remaining Avengers are devastated. They are of course dealing with loss of friends and loved ones due to the Snap. They're also dealing with their sense of failure in not stopping it. And especially after their initial bid to reverse what happened comes up empty, their grief manifests in a lot of different ways.

Natasha Romanova/Black Widow tries to keep on like before as much as she can, acting as team liaison and director from Avengers Headquarters even though physical threats from enemies like before are no longer very pronounced.

Clint Barton/Hawkeye becomes a violent vigilante, going on a rampage of vengeance against mobsters and drug dealers with the reasoning that they truly deserve it as opposed to his Snapped family.

Steve Rogers/Captain America focuses on helping other grieving people, leading a support group and checking in with friends. He doesn't let on much about how this is affecting him.

Bruce Banner/The Hulk retreats from public life for a while to address his own inner conflict between his personas before re-emerging as a new, open, proud, and complete version of himself.

Tony Stark/Iron Man, after an initial cathartic outburst, accepts what has happened and begins building a new life with Pepper Potts, and bristles at any possibility that his newfound peace could be undone.

Thor is perhaps the most interesting and enduring exhibition of grief in Endgame. He begins the movie barely saying a word, and Rocket Raccoon has to clarify that the reason is he's pissed because he thinks he failed. He then lets his physical health deteriorate, turns to alcohol and video games in isolation, and forbids Thanos' name to even be mentioned in his presence. After beginning his part of the mission to reverse the Snap, he withers in the face of responsibility. He repeatedly breaks down in open displays of sadness. His grief is the most outward and pronounced and persistent and debilitating.

We see all these ways of coping with loss in people around us. Some choose to throw themselves back into work. Some become angry and vengeful. Some turn to the needs of others. Some try to reconcile inner conflict. Some do their best to rebuild and move forward. And some become paralyzed and isolated.

None of these are right or wrong, or the best or worst (well, except the violent revenge thing...that one's pretty much just wrong, although the expression of anger can be healing with the right form of outlet). Sometimes our own way of grieving bumps up against that of another, and we may deem the other's way inappropriate. And there may be times when some of these outward ways of dealing with grief are actually tactics to mask the effect of loss from ourselves or to others.

When attempting to move through our own grief, it is always best to ask why we do what we do. Why have we chosen to work so hard, or move the focus off of ourselves to deal with others' pain? Might we be trying to move on too quickly, or might we be cutting ourselves off from the support of people who love us?

There's no blanket right or wrong answer to these questions. Grief never completely disappears. We will miss the people we lose for the rest of our lives, and we respond to that at our own pace and with our own ways. But there are ways that are more healthy and less healthy, ways that do bring healing and ways that help us avoid healing.

What Endgame shows us is a handful of possibilities of dealing with grief. We may be able to see ourselves in one or more of these expressions, and ask whether they've been healthy or useful for us, or how we might adopt one or more going forward.

(image source)