When you truly love something, you won’t be content to be bad at it.
It was with great interest that I read Liz Horst’s recent piece for the Play channel, “How to Be an Amateur.” Several months ago she had sent several writers the delightful essay by G.K Chesterton from which she quotes. I read it and found that Chesterton’s counterintuitive madness — which is on full display as he recounts a game of croquet in which he was soundly defeated by his friend Parkinson — immediately had a ring of truth to it.
“It is only we who play badly who love the Game itself,” Chesterton says.
“You (Parkinson) love glory; you love applause; you love the earthquake voice of victory; you do not love croquet. You do not love croquet until you love being beaten at croquet. It is we the bunglers who adore the occupation in the abstract. It is we to whom it is art for art’s sake.
The good painter has skill. It is the bad painter who loves his art. The good musician loves being a musician, the bad musician loves music. With such a pure and hopeless passion do I worship croquet.”
This is the central point of the essay and of Horst’s piece. We see in it a recognition and warning of the shadow side of the professional, which is that the end can become the means. You do it for the paycheck, and soon the task becomes obligatory rather than gratuitously joyful. To put it another way, if losing at your favorite game ruins your day, is it really the game you love? Win or lose and all that? For better or for worse?
“We won’t be experts in everything we love,” Horst concludes, but that’s okay, “go ahead and be a bad musician, a bad painter, a bad writer. Let your interest catch on something, and pursue it without shame.”
While I affirm her conclusion wholeheartedly, I believe there’s more to be said for what’s left of the empty life of the professional. Chesterton’s croquet partner Parkinson suggests as much when he offers this retort to Chesterton’s amateurish antics:
(I)t seems to me that the more a man likes a game the better he would want to play it. Granted that the pleasure in the thing itself comes first, does not the pleasure of success come naturally and inevitably afterwards? . . . I admit the gentleman does first and foremost want to be in the lady’s presence. But I never yet heard of a gentleman who wanted to look an utter ass when he was there.
The point stands that if we love something as amateurs we will gladly do it even if we aren’t good at it. But as Parkinson points out, if we truly love it we won’t be content to be bad at it. Now let us take a certain liberty with his metaphor about the gentleman before the lady a little further and consider its implications for the drudgery of professionalism. What if we imagine this lady not so much as the sport of croquet (i.e. the pursuit), but as the person before whom we are engaging in the pursuit. In this conception, the gentleman may enjoy his sport as an amateur, but does not the deepest source of his enjoyment stem not so much from the game itself as the fact that he is playing the game in the presence of the lady?
Who do you wish to woo, impress, or honor? Who do you want to share in your greatest joys or worst blunders? And what does that mean for how we approach life? The Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards captured the divine implications for amateur and professional pursuits alike in the sixth of his 70 life resolutions: “Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.” When he made this resolution, Edwards surely intended to echo the ancient wisdom of the Old Testament writer of Ecclesiastes: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”
Whatever your hand finds to do. That’s a broad term, encompassing all of life. It carries with it the implicit recognition that if all eventually turns to dust, then it is not only enjoying the activity itself that matters most. It’s about whose sake we do the activity for and who we enjoy it with. This is what inspires Edwards and the ancient sage to speak so highly of engaging wholly in every pursuit in life, no matter what cards one is dealt. They understood that life is lived before God, the great romantic himself, the person whose pleasure and delight we most deeply long to feel. Anything done with him and for him is thus worthy of being done with all our might.
“Join your community softball team; pick up woodworking; play golf; sing in a choir,” writes Horst. Yes and amen! Swing for the fences, build yourself a coffee table, let your voice ring out–on key or off. And then remember that life lived with our omnipresent King and Father means we can bring the same zeal, the same fullness of living, to working a fast-food job or washing the dishes. Live, therefore, with all your might, any way and every way, each and every day.