Confidence, trust, belief. These are core necessaries for a creative life, even a crazy destructive one with life-threatening flaws. When Billie Holiday was singing, when Jimi Hendrix played, they had confidence, trust, belief in their handiwork. It was off stage, when not performing, that they crumbled. They felt bad when not in the creative moment. Perhaps, I don’t know, they also felt bad in the creative moment but if so, something else was also present which overpowered the bad feeling and made them – watch them perform – feel great.
Members of Shared Reading groups often report ‘increased confidence’ but I ask myself what is meant by that? It feels like the word itself hides a wooly concept that I can’t quite bring into focus. When I look it up in the Etymological Dictionary I learn that word originally had to do with trusting another person and only later became about trusting oneself:
c. 1400, “assurance or belief in the good will, veracity, etc. of another,” from Old French confidence or directly from Latin confidentia, from confidentem (nominative confidens) “firmly trusting, bold,” present participle of confidere “to have full trust or reliance,” from assimilated form of com, here probably an intensive prefix (see com-), + fidere “to trust” (from PIE root *bheidh- “to trust, confide, persuade”).
From mid-15c. as “reliance on one’s own powers, resources, or circumstances, self-assurance.”
Interesting to see that the three words I started with are all here. These things are about a stance in relation to experience: when we have little trust and don’t believe good will happen then it is hard to face the problems life throws at us with confidence. But if we start with “assurance or belief in the good will, veracity, etc. of another,” then we are more likely to develop “reliance on one’s own powers, resources, or circumstances, self-assurance.”. It can work the other way: learning to trust yourself can lead to learning to trust others.
Whatever ‘confidence’ is, or stands for, it is vital for resilience, for the ability to keep going in the face of failure, defeat, hard knocks. How to I know? I know from my own mistakes and down-falls. And so as not to go too deeply, too publicly, into the really terrible mistakes, I turn your attention to my handiwork. My crochet. Which is a metaphor for other more important handiwork: relationship with family, friends, work. Myself. Human makings. And, as my mentor said, oh dear.
But first, let’s read a poem. I’ve written about George Herbert’s Elixir here before (search The Elixir or George Herbert in the box to the right) but it’s always worth re-reading. Remember, I’m not a Christian and I have to translate whatever GH means into something I can understand. The key problem for me at the outset is to make ‘my God and King’ into something real. I mentally cross Herbert’s words out and think ‘teach me blurry x shaped hole that means fine, whole, overwhelmingly powerful force for good in the universe’ Not as concise as Herbert’s formulation, I think you’ll agree. Much simpler if I could just use the word ‘God’.
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.
Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.
All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—”for Thy sake”—
Will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.
The lines I wanted to think about today are:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.
I like this reminder that very small, apparently insignificant things count and become good, or even great, when done well or with loving good will. The room is fine but so is the action of sweeping. But I notice now that the first word of this poem is its key word, ‘teach’. You have to learn this stuff! It don’t come natural. That’s certainly true for me.
And now I’m thinking about how, in the beginning, learning is completely natural…
Baby: watching everything, trying and failing, observing, copying, trying, failing, trying again, experimenting, trying again.
Adult: not trying and not learning.
What on earth has happened? We lose the willingness to make mistakes, and for a variety of reasons.
To return to my crochet.
Hmm. When my mentor held the square(ish) artefact pictured above in her outstretched fingers and examined my work with a critical eye I was transported to the many appalling lessons in Domestic Science (cookery, needlework) I endured or caused havoc in between the ages of the 11-15. They were always telling me I’d have to undo it.
Whatever I’d done, to be frank with you, it was usually a mess. I didn’t mind the mess, but I hated being told off for it and I resented scruffy the look of my handiwork in their hands, criticised, misunderstood, unloved. Of course, even then, the handiwork was a metaphor, wasn’t it, for me?
When my mentor stretched out the holey mess of my crochet, I knew what she was going to say, as my stomach churned in memory of school, but I also felt pleased, even glad. Yes, she was right, I would have to undo it and do it again. It was, I had to concede, pretty bad. I had pulled the wool over my own eyes by telling myself in a childish way that it wouldn’t matter, but as soon as I saw her holding it, I knew it did matter and that I would have to do it again. This is confidence.
Where did the confidence come from? This is a confidence I had never had at school, which meant I could not learn at school and no one could teach me (a couple of English teachers excepted). I think it came from knowing I have in the past tried to fix things and sometimes succeeded (and not just this, other, more serious things).
Also, from knowing that the mistake wasnt a serious one – it’s only crochet!
Also, that as my mentor said, she’d learned from experience, blankets generally work out.
Also, that I can live with making things that are slightly wonky. (I’m the opposite of a perfectionist and find ‘it’ll do’ is mostly a life-enhancing motto).
I had confidence because I could bear the shame of making a mess of it, because it wasn’t serious and because I believed I could probably more or less fix it.
But what if it had been more serious – if my mentor had been finding gaping holes in the way I run The Reader? Or the way I’ve brought my children up, or care for my relatives? The shame of not having done something well in those cases is tightly bound up in my sense of self and of self-achievement, in my own estimation of who I am. It’s hard to take criticism when it seems to get to the heart of you.
But why? Don’t I still need to learn ?
The holes need unpicking. You have to start again. And that’s where confidence, trust, belief matter. To accept the criticism – there really is a hole there and it really does matter – you have to have the confidence that you can have a go at getting it fixed. When the hole is in your self, sometimes that is hard to believe.
At those times, I like to read The Slip by Wendell Berry – particularly these lines:
Where the imperfect has departed, the perfect
begins its struggle to return.
I do believe in the possibility of ‘the perfect’, and I keep trying to clear the imperfect (yes, yes, often very imperfectly in the more serious areas) to make way for something better. In this case, a better, though far-from-perfect and not-quite-square: