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Tuesday
Jun282016

Being a beginner

photo credit: Kelsey Ann Fein

The emotions I am feeling as I prepare for this trip have been difficult to name. Even when I think of combinations of emotions—excitement and fear, eagerness and sadness, anticipation and regret—none of them seem quite right. What I finally realized is that I think I am feeling what it is like to be a beginner at an age where I have gotten used to being competent.

We all start out life as beginners, unable to do much of anything but cry and wave our fists. The first dozen years of our lives are really nothing but one new thing after another. However, by middle age we are used to being able to do many things without a second thought. Daily tasks have become rote, we have some skill at a profession, new ideas seem novel. True beginner-ness, though exciting-looking from the outside, may actually be something we avoid.

For me, being a beginner brings up some combination of unsettled-excited-terrified-ashamed-anxious-eager-and-worried. After 21 years of living in the same house and shopping in the same neighborhood, I am used to knowing where I am and what I am doing. Even studying to be a therapist and opening my practice in the last eight years felt like something I had already been doing my whole life. Now I am embarking on projects that require me to face up to some things that I just don’t have any experience with—at ALL. I have not travelled much. I have never lived “off the grid” for any extended period of time. I am not what you call “handy.” This coming year brings me face-to-face with all the simple (and not so simple) things I don’t know. I may know how to write a poem, make a stew, prune an apple tree, or conduct a therapy session, but how do you hitch a trailer to a truck or fill a propane container? How do you maintain a wet cell battery? What is a rabbet joint and how do you make one? And what exactly do I need to get that solar panel to work?

I think this feels more unsettling to me because these are all things that many people in my family do easily as part of their everyday lives. To them none of these tasks would seem difficult. But when you are born last in a big family, one strategy for making a place for yourself is to find something that no one else is doing already, claim that as yours, and avoid the rest. After all, when someone else is already building a barn when you are just trying to figure out which end of the hammer you pound the nail with, why bother? It makes more sense to strike out into uncharted territory and avoid the whole issue of competition altogether.

So it probably isn’t surprising that there are whole areas of life-skills that I have never attempted—electrical work, carpentry, plumbing, and engine repair come to mind. I wish now that I had paid more attention to my father when he tried to teach me about electricity or that I had watched my brothers welding irrigation pipes together. And it is not lost on me that now at 50, these skills from my childhood are the very ones that I find I need to move forward—like I am going back to weave in these loose threads to the larger tapestry of my life.

Which brings me back to the question of how to be a beginner. First off, I need to simply admit what I don’t know, even though it is embarrassing to me that I continue to confuse amps and watts.

Then I need to recognize what I am feeling and thinking—that when faced with something I don’t know, some part of me feels paralyzed with shame, fear, and worry, or with thoughts of being inadequate or incapable or stuck. In the past, these feelings and thoughts might have automatically led me to avoid the task at hand. But as I actually take the time to name these feelings I also notice that I can tolerate them long enough to learn from them and do something different.

As I continue paying attention, I notice that being a beginner takes time. It takes time to know what I am seeing, time to learn a skill, and more time to assimilate it. There is nothing efficient about being a beginner—especially since learning and assimilating seem to take more time at age 50 than they did at 15. A good deal of my anxiety arises just because I value efficiency and get impatient with myself when I think I am “too slow.” This could change.

Being a beginner also requires an adventuresome spirit, the willingness to screw up, and the acceptance that I WILL break things and fall down sometimes. Anyone who has watched a toddler learn to walk knows that trial and error (a LOT of error!) is the way that learning happens. With kids we are kinder and call that “play.” As adults this kind of learning can get framed as “mistakes.’’

This all leads me to think that I need some new rules if I am going to enjoy my beginner-hood. And it helps me to have a little pithy prompt when I learn new things, so here are some reminders:

  • Curiosity trumps efficiency.  (Sometimes.)
  • Tasks take as much time as they take. 
  • “Not knowing” is inherent to learning.
  • It’s ok to break things, do it wrong, miss a step, or otherwise screw up.
  • Begin again when needed.

In the end, I think I need to appreciate being a beginner because it is actually a fleeting state. I need to enjoy it while it lasts, because pretty soon I learn something, and then I start to think I know what I am doing, and then those wonderfully-uncomfortable doors of possibility start to close up again. Being a beginner is a good reminder of the breadth of the world and my smallness in the face of it. It helps me to have humility and wonder and awe all at the same time. It is worth embracing and enjoying—while it lasts.

Note: Thank you to Kelsey Ann Fein for her perfect image of the feeling of beginner-hood. Click here to enjoy more of her sensitively-attuned vision.

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