Some people won’t do anything until they figure out everything. If they can’t do it perfectly, they can’t – or won’t – do it at all. And so of course they do nothing.
Just try telling them what the English thinker and writer G. K. Chesterton said on the subject: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” They’ll miss the point entirely. They may even shout you down.
Chesterton was saying that some things – important things – cannot be left to the professionals. We must do them, even if we can’t do them perfectly. Chesterton was not advocating slip-shod work. He was saying that it is better to do some things partially (“badly” was his word) than to leave them undone.
Raising children is one example (one Chesterton himself used). If the next generation were to wait to have children until they could raise them perfectly, they would be the last generation.
Spiritual practices – like prayer and Bible reading – are another example. If reading the Bible perfectly (with a scholar’s knowledge of original languages and a saint’s aspiration for holiness) is a prerequisite, very few of us will have any firsthand knowledge of the Bible.
This principle applies to all kinds of things. If we have to play like Alfred Brendel to sit at the piano, the ivories will be layered with dust. If we have to drive like Dale Earnhardt (Sr. or Jr., take your pick) before we get behind the wheel, the car will never leave the garage. If we have to cook like a French chef before we can go into the kitchen, we’re going to starve to death.
There is a story in the Gospel of Mark about a woman who poured an expensive flask of ointment on Jesus’s head. Some of the people present – led by the notorious Judas – roundly criticized the woman, arguing that the ointment could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.
Jesus, however, silenced them, explaining that “She did what she could.” She took what she had and did what she could. The things she couldn’t do – prevent Jesus’s arrest or save him from the cross – didn’t prevent her from doing the one thing she could do.
There are so many things we cannot do. Today I visited a friend who is very ill. I cannot prevent her death. I cannot even prolong her life. But I can talk to her, pray with her and encourage her to trust God. I can’t do much, but I can do something.
How much better the world would be if we just did what we could. For example, we exercise so little influence over politics. But what we can do, we should do. We can vote. We can express our opinions. We can write our representatives.
There is little we can do about global environmental conditions. But we can buy energy-efficient lighting. We can recycle and reuse. Whatever steps we think are appropriate to take (and we vary greatly in what we think those might be) we can urge congress to take them.
We cannot end poverty in the world. It’s too big a job for us, which is why Jesus candidly told his first disciples that the world would always have poor people. But he was not giving them (or us) an excuse to do nothing. He expected them (and us) to do what we can.
What would happen if people were to do what they can, rather than focus on what they can’t? What if the congress quit arguing about what they can’t do – raise taxes or expand Medicaid – and started making decision about what they can do? It would change the political calculus immediately and bring an unhappy period of government deadlock to an end.
But I’ve slipped back (how easy it is) into talking about what other people can do. What can I do? That’s the revolutionary question. How can I make the world a better place or myself a better person? That’s where I need to start. And, in point of fact, it’s the only place I can start.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/4/2014