Jack of All Trades
The Spirituality of Incompetence
I’m losing the use of my hands. But I’ve known that was happening for the last twenty years. Construction, drywall, especially the trowel finishing, is brutal on the hands and joints.
I lost the ability to play guitar over ten years ago because my fingers could not form a chord any longer. Now my grip is barely strong enough to open jars. Forget tearing that plastic seal off the top of a package of grated cheese. There is a constant crushing pain I just live with. Certain movements are lightning in my wrists, thumbs and joints.
The MRI showed I have arthritis throughout my bones. The hand doctor said he has to try “least invasive treatments” before peeling back my skin and removing a deteriorated bone near my thumb, re-configuring the tendons, and grinding off the arthritis and spurs from others. He took a syringe full of cortisone and pushed a needle into several spaces between the bones, spinning and jabbing it trying to find the openings, and injected a pale yellow fluid into my joints that might cushion the friction. Fortunately I have a nearly inhuman tolerance for pain. In two months we will talk about whether it helped or not.
I’ve also inherited my Father’s essential tremors. The condition makes your hands shake involuntarily especially when trying to do fine motor tasks. I noticed my hands beginning to shake about the same age I first noticed my Dad’s hands shaking at the supper table cutting food, eating soup, holding a fork. Eventually he could barely feed himself, he could only write with a pen with the utmost concentration and could not hit a correct key on the keyboard of his computer or calculator. This will probably be me in 10 years or so. My days of drawing Samurai saints is numbered.
Over my 71 years I’ve put my hands to a lot of things, vocationally and avocationally.
I look back on all I’ve done and it has occurred to me that I have mastered nothing that I’ve set my hands to do. Of course the advent of the internet has confirmed my self-assessment. For everything I’ve attempted, studied, worked at for decades, practiced, dabbled at, and even made a living doing, there are videos and pictures of thousands of people, even 4 year olds at some things, who far surpass my levels of skill and competence. The reality is, I am good enough at some things to get by because I put some effort in to learning enough to do the jobs I was being paid to do, or satisfy my own senses of accomplishment, but compared to anyone else who is truly a master I am mediocre at best at everything I do. The term “imposter syndrome” fit me for a long time. It’s the angst of performing in public in between people who are not as good as you are and being thankful for them as comparisons, and people who are truly good and fearing you’ll be exposed by them.
So, I’ve known for decades that I’m a “Jack of all trades and master of none.” I learned everything I know about construction on the fly. I started my business having three months experience sweeping floors on a jobsite. I never had a formal apprenticeship in any trade. I just paid attention to everything on job sites and asked a lot of questions. I learned a lot of “tricks of the trades” from masters but never really learned the trades because I was too busy trying to make a living.
Originally, a “Jack” referred to a knave, a low-brow, ill-mannered commoner. In that sense it is kind of derogatory, someone who hasn’t the skill, wits, intelligence or motivation to master anything and rise above the masses. But there is also a fuller quote (dubiously attributed to Shakespeare):
"A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one."
In terms of making a living or attaining the personal satisfaction, the mastery of one thing can be lucrative, fulfilling, and even necessary. We need masters-of-one-thing. I’d prefer a hand surgeon who has 12 years of medical school and a residency under a master of cutting into hands rather than a mediocre drywaller who watched a few dozen YouTube videos on hand surgery and “did his personal research”.
But, I can tell you, as necessary as “masters of one” are, there is a good living to be made and a great deal of personal satisfaction being a jack of all trades. Not everything in life demands perfection, not everyone is capable of attaining perfection. The reality is, most of life for most of us is living with imperfection, flaws, damaged and blemished goods. The world is not perfect and good enough is, wellll…. good enough if good enough relieves the pain, addresses the issue, fixes the problem, saves the day, adds some beauty, or gives us some respite. And sometimes the price to make good enough perfect is too high both monetarily and existentially for most of the human race muddling through to the next broken thing, because even if it is perfect life will eventually break no matter how perfect it is and how many times it has been restored.
I used to regret mastering nothing. But these days I look at four year olds playing Paganini, mechanics building motorcycle art, sketchers rendering incredible images, carpenters, carvers, sculptors and dozens of other trades creating unimaginable structures and adornments, because I’ve dabbled at all their crafts, I have an understanding and a deep admiration, even reverence for what it took them to be able to create their works. My world is not smaller because I am not a master, it is expanded because I see more clearly the work, skill, technicality, and beauty of the work. Breadth and shallowness have made me more capable of awe and gratitude for their beauty and what little beauty I am capable of creating.
And, because I’ve dabbled in theology, it seems to me that is our calling: to be creatures of awe, ultimately before God who is The Creator and the end of all beauty in whose image we are created. We have hands because the hand of God formed us. We seek and love beauty because His Spirit is breathed into us.
I look at my broken hands now and I realize that they have served me well, not just in the trades, but in learning the breadth and depth of life.
These hands have learned to print, color inside the lines, bathe a dead man, draw outside the lines, build houses, churches, high-rise offices and coffins, produce a podcast, write cursive, turn a wrench, wipe a tear, change the diaper of a child and a parent, pour a beer (into a glass and down the drain), dig a grave, throw a pot (on a wheel and at a wall), type a Master's thesis, write a book, put a Band-aid on a boo-boo, cook for dozens and for one, write a computer program, turn a page, pull a trigger, bait a hook, clean a toilet, pet a mean dog, point in the wrong direction, flip off an idiot, gut a deer, shake hands, beat an adversary, caress a beloved, anoint the dead, wave goodbye, make a bar-chord and play the blues, snap a picture, cleanse a chalice, handle a snake, slap my forehead, overhaul an engine, hang on too long and let go too soon....
I didn’t master anything in life, but in it all, in everything I have touched, I have learned awe.
And honestly, I’m still kind of mediocre at that.