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Quotations I love: G. K. Chesterton on doing things badly

Lynne Baab • Friday January 29 2021

Quotations I love: G. K. Chesterton on doing things badly

I was in my early thirties when a friend said she had come across a very helpful quotation. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly,” she said. She told me she had been raised to do things well, and she found living up to that standard to be paralyzing. She talked about the fact that she never wrote thank-you notes after her wedding because she knew they had to say something kind about the present, and she wasn’t able to do that. So she did nothing.

She told me that she had learned to write, “Thanks for the present,” then sign her name. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,” she repeated. “I’d rather have people know I got the gift than to have them wonder.”

I was appalled on several levels. As someone for whom writing has always come easily, I wondered how hard it could be to write three sentences – one thanking the person for giving a gift, one expressing something nice about the gift, and the final sentence focused on something valuable about her relationship with the person. And secondly, like so many others with Depression and World War 2 era parents, I was raised with the opposite saying, as my friend probably was: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” I had never interrogated that belief; I had accepted it as true and important.

As my appalled feelings receded, and I began to evaluate these two contrasting sayings, I realized that thinking you have to do everything perfectly is quite overwhelming. While I had never had trouble writing thank-you notes, I had turned away from trying many new things because I knew I wouldn’t immediately do them well.

For the record, G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) said the words about doing things badly. He was an English writer, philosopher, lay theologian, and literary and art critic. His nickname, the “prince of paradox,” is appropriate when considering this saying. The goal of the version I heard growing up was to help me excel. Instead, it stopped me from trying new things, a sad paradox.

That moment with my friend and her account of her thank-you notes added onto an earlier event that happened right around my 24th birthday. At a Christian conference, the speaker, an entrepreneur, talked about his childhood. He said as a kid he was always starting new businesses, and most of them failed pretty quickly. Whenever one of his endeavors failed, his mother baked him a cake. She told him that celebrating failures was important, because failures teach us so much if we are willing to learn from them.

I vividly remember how stunned I felt sitting in that audience listening to that speaker. The idea that failures could, and even should, be celebrated really does not fit with my parents’ emphasis on “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”

I’ve gotten a little better over my lifespan trying challenging things, stepping out into the unknown, allowing uncertainty to be a part of my journey. My insight of last week, discovered in writing a devotional for my church, is that the disciples set out at Jesus request to cross the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41). A storm came up, and they were very scared. Their danger, discomfort, and fear came about because they had obeyed Jesus, not because they had done anything wrong. Yet in my childhood lessons, everything that went wrong was because I – or someone else – had done something wrong.

God, help me to take risks when you guide me into uncomfortable paths. Help me to embrace the lessons of things that go wrong. Help me to bake cakes for myself and others when we are learning from hard times. I want to be a more adventurous and flexible person, and I really need your help to get there. Help me to follow Jesus on his path for me. Amen.

(Next week: the consolation of imaginary things. Illustration by Dave Baab. I love to get new subscribers. Sign up below if you’d like to receive and email when I post on this blog.)

I’m thinking of mildly risky things I did that turned out to be wonderful. My first visit to the Monastery of St Gertrude in Cottonwood, Idaho, in 1998 felt like a risk at the time, but that visit, and then the repeated visits over the next half dozen years, were huge gifts. I wrote an article that drew on those visits: Gifts of Freedom – the Sabbath and Fasting. Another area of risk for me came when I learned that God desires all Christians to be witnesses – not evangelists but witnesses. When I learned that, I began risking in conversations to simply describe my experience with God. I wrote about this shift in my thinking, and the risks I began to take, in an article: Witnesses and Evangelists.

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