What I Learned in Hell
I finally finished the plumbing job in my kitchen yesterday. If you read my previous post, I’m In Hell, you know it was one of the worst things I have ever done. However, I am surprised to realize that I already carry a large amount of pride in the work I did. It’s something I thought I could never do. While I was doing it I thought I’d never get it finished and would have to give up and call a plumber. During the project I kept thinking, “Do I really have to keep doing this and redoing it over and over? Why can’t I just be done?” But it turns out the repetition helped me get better at doing the job. I became familiar with what gets done in what order, what I need at the hardware store, and what kinds of things to look out for.
What I learned in hell is that sometimes the very thing that makes hell hellacious will make victory sweet when it comes. If it ever does. And that’s what’s so hard about it. When you’re in hell, you never know whether victory is coming. It just might not. You might have to call a plumber and give up in defeat. You might not reach your goal. You could fail. That tension is what makes the experience agonizing. If I knew three days ago what I knew now — that I would complete this project, that I would succeed and move on to do other easier projects in my kitchen — this whole thing would have been very different. Then it would have been just a matter of putting in the time until victory day.
But in the middle of the battle, you don’t know whether victory will ever come. You realize that with every step you take, you might just be investing more time in what will turn out to be a fruitless effort. You second-guess yourself a lot. It’s hard to put in the time when there’s a chance that you won’t reach your goal no matter how hard or long you work.
“Maybe I should just call the plumber right now.” “Maybe I should give up. I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m going to ruin something.” “What am I doing? This is a waste of time. I’m never going to finish this.”
But you slog on. Things are terrible. Two hours later things are so much worse that you long for the good old days of two hours ago. After a day or so, and your second or third complete redo and third or fourth trip to Home Depot (remember, this is my first time ever doing plumbing), a dark cloud descends. A cloud of anger, frustration, and feelings of incompetence, and then you sink into depression. (That depression, for me, was at its peak on Tuesday. It was so bad I did something I never do — I went and bought something on impulse, just to make me feel better. It didn’t.)
What I learned is that if you stick it out, if you don’t give up, you are learning something with every mistake, every disassemble and reassemble, every do-over. Even though you keep feeling stupider and less competent each time, you are actually getting better as you go. The reality is the exact opposite of how it appears.
I hope that is true in the rest of my life as well. I hope that as I sit here typing this blog, aware of other things I could be doing, my life is other than it appears. I hope I am learning something — piecing together lessons that I will carry with me into future ventures into unfamiliar territories.
As I struggled the past few days, I kept worrying that I was going to make a mistake that would force me to buy a new countertop or a new sink — that I would ruin something valuable that I already had. Isn’t this what we always face in trying new things? We’re always afraid of losing whatever we already have – position, power, income, status, image, reputation, etc. We can hold onto those things so tightly that our iron grip keeps us from ever embracing anything new. And when we stop embracing new things, we stop feeling the sense of pride in our accomplishments that I am feeling now. I want more of those kinds of experiences. One of my favorite movies is Braveheart. In that film William Wallace says, “Every man dies. Not every man truly lives.” I got to live a little this week.
Pleasure and pain, baby. No guts, no glory. Crucifixion and resurrection. There are more metaphors and cliches about the celebration that comes after struggle than I can count. This sentiment is expressed no more beautifully than in the Bible. Here is one of my favorites:
Psalms 30:5 (NIV) 5 …weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.