Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Looking Like an Idiot... Is a Good Thing

“No, you want to twist the wire as you’re coiling it. One hand over, one hand under.”

I was standing in a dimly lit theatre hall holding a fifty foot roll of speaker wire as Ameen tried, yet again, to show me how to coil the wire. Instead of simply curling it around my wrist and elbow as I’d done my entire life, Ameen was showing me how to do it properly. I could feel my face getting red as he patiently corrected the position of my hands. I’d played sports my entire life, considered myself reasonably intelligent, and yet here I was unable to coil a damn wire.

Our church had an unusual setup. Every Sunday morning we unpacked a huge trailer of equipment to convert an entire theatre into a church, complete with Sunday school classrooms and live worship. I’d joined the setup team, happy to volunteer, and completely unaware of my burgeoning exposure as a technical moron. Assigned to the main theatre, I hadn’t realized the volume of wires and speakers and sound equipment necessary to run a service. Normally I liked fiddling around with our television at home, hooking up the sound system and setting things up. And yet, here I was, having that sense that youo’re in way over your head. I hadn’t felt like such an idiot in a long time. Abstract concepts and philosophy? No problem. Writing, counseling, artistic conception? Great. Working with my hands? Um, not so much.

I still couldn’t coil the wire, but someone else had finally come over to help. Hours later, I was still shaking my head, long after we’d packed things up again. A damn wire? Really? The whole morning had been a bit surreal for me. My inability to perform such a simple task lingered much longer than I’d expected, and I was frankly surprised at how much it had thrown me, how incompetent I’d felt. I wasn’t looking forward to the next week, when I’d be forced to do it all over again.

Upon reflection a few days later, however, I realized that I’d made the right call in joining the setup team. Not only was I learning a new skill, but I was stretching myself, something I didn’t do as often as I had in the past. It was incredibly humbling, but I had enough self-awareness to know that if I stopped putting myself in uncomfortable situations once in a while, I’d become an insufferable shit.

Our society forces us to specialize. There isn’t a whole lot of necessity these days for the pioneer in an agrarian society that has to be good at everything just to survive. And if we’re to advance in our fields, the sheer volume of people and industry means that most of us are pushed into a niche. Everything else is done for us. Everything from food preparation to fixing things around the house.

It gets progressively more difficult as to take risks as we get older. We become more specialized and take fewer risks. We experience a certain confidence in dealing with issues with which we’re familiar, and generally choose to ignore the things that have the potential to be embarrassing. We define ourselves by our fears, by our dislike for certain feelings, and instead of growing and learning, we plateau. Life isn’t a journey anymore, it’s a treadmill. And as soon as we reach that point, bitterness creeps into our lives.

Feeling like an idiot sucks. But if we’re not willing to be embarrassed, we’ll never learn anything new. We’ll never understand this whole empathy gig, this whole idea about walking in someone else’s shoes because the only shoes we wear are our own. That makes it harder to appreciate other skill sets, and can lead to elitism and arrogance. When we try new things, however, that begins to change. Instead of being a permanent expert, we become permanent beginners. And while that may sound like a load of frustration, what it means is that every day is new again, that our posture becomes one of humility and grace, and that our life suddenly needs to be lived again.

If you have the opportunity, sign up for something that will make you look like an idiot. It won’t feel great at first, but if you push through, you’ll find your reward when it’s over. Even if it just means learning how to coil a damn wire.

-Steve