Saturday, 13 August 2011

Practice Makes Perfect

For a long time I've wondered why some people seem so certain of what they believe, while I find myself so often vacillating and asking questions.  While I was out riding my bike this morning it occurred to me that it's because they practice.

It's very much like playing guitar (something else I'm not very good at).  A brilliant guitarist like Bruce Cockburn or Jeff Lang makes it look and sound easy, but they can only do that because they have spent hours behind closed doors playing scales and arpeggios over and over again until they can do it without thinking.  They have usually started young, when their hands and brains are still supple.  They also look after their hands like precious treasures.  I've never forgotten the bushwalk I went on with a serious classical guitarist - he wore thick gloves the whole day because he couldn't afford to cut his hands.  Of course they need some talent and the right shaped fingers, but without all that hard work and care they would be nothing.

Belief is the same.  People can stand up in public and argue for their convictions, but they only do it well through years of training.  Some people have more talent for it than others, but without practice the talent will be wasted.  Like a musician, you have to immerse yourself in your chosen belief.  You have to read the right books, listen to the right speakers, surround yourself with people who think as you do.  You have to shield yourself from contrary influences and shocks which could damage your certainty.  You have to train yourself strictly - often with the help of others - to shut out doubt.  In the end it will come naturally to you, and you'll wonder why other people don't see things as clearly as you do.

Of course such skills are transferable.  A master guitarist can quickly learn piano or mandolin.  Someone who has mastered certainty in, say, religion, can transfer that skill to other fields, like science or politics or even atheism.  But the core skills have to be there, and you have to keep practicing.

I tried to cultivate the skill of certainty, but I think I started too late.  By the time I immersed myself in the culture of a conservative church I was in my 20s.  I had a whole childhood and adolescence of training in critical thought, in asking awkward questions, in not accepting authoritative answers.  Hard as I tried, the questions kept coming.  I kept asking them at awkward moments, and I kept not being satisfied with the answers.

Some people possibly feel that I didn't work hard enough at it, and that if I'd kept going I might have eventually mastered it.  Maybe they're right.  I like to think that I had a different calling.  From my earliest days I was trained to think a bit differently to everyone else.  Not so differently that people would think I was batty, but differently enough that I would never be on quite the same course as those around me.  I was trained to ask questions and go on asking, to poke into the soft spots of an argument and see if it squealed.  I took classes in it, I practiced it day in and day out. 

I would always have been second rate at total commitment.  As it is, I'm highly skilled at uncertainty.  Practice makes perfect.  If you share your certainty with me, I'll share my uncertainty with you, and perhaps between us we could make a great duet.

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