Inadequacy is that feeling of falling short. It’s that feeling of being unfit for the task.
It’s the feeling that you don’t measure up to what is being asked of you, or to what you feel you should be able to do or be.
Some people have this feeling often, but there isn’t the connection that we’d expect between those who are capable and those who are confident. JustOne once said, “The incompetent are always confident.” (Which isn’t the same as saying that confidence indicates incompetence, of course.) I think there’s more than a grain of truth to that, in the same way that those who aren’t very bright are convinced that they’re smarter than everyone else; I once heard a criminal defense lawyer commenting that his clients are, on the whole, quite stupid. They imagine that they’re criminal masterminds, but really, well, they’re not.
[Addition on December 17, 2015: WiseOne and LoyalOne were telling me, with sadness, about a book that ridiculed criminals. They said that some of the stories — such as the time the criminal ‘phoned ahead’ to ask the convenience store clerk if there were a lot of money in the cash register, or the time the criminal broke into a bank and then spent so much time on the bank’s computer in order to google about breaking into safes that he was caught — display almost an endearing quality. While condemning the behaviour, we should be able to see the person too. As Chesterton says, a bad man is still a man.]
The true criminal mastermind doesn’t need a lawyer – he needs a conscience.
Still, it’s somewhat surprising when you hear about such-and-such a super-talented person having terrible jitters, like the world-famous concert pianist who is in the bathroom throwing up before every performance.
It’s a predicament familiar to everyone – when you see the big difference between the skills necessary to do a good job and the skills that you have, well, different emotions come upon you.
As for me, I recently laughed out loud as I considered writing a certain blog post. You see, someone had sent me a link to a post, and I was tempted to respond via my own post. In a way, I felt that I should reply.
But as I thought about the prospect (it’s still unwritten and may never be), a strong image came to my mind, and it was so vivid that it felt almost like an inspiration, were it not for the fact that the image was so far from inspiring.
I pictured myself as a white plastic bottle-cap – kind of squished too, if you want the gory details.
It represented exactly how I felt as I considered the task ahead of me.
Who am I to explain that little issue of The Mystery of Evil and Suffering in the World? This was the topic up for discussion. Only that. Is there meaning in life’s suffering and pain?
A Chesterton-sized topic.
And I’m not Chesterton! (www.imnotchesterton.com)
Where is that big guy when you need him anyway?
He’s the one who should reply.
As for me, I would rather be his secretary.
In Maisie Ward’s biography on him, she says that Dorothy Collins, Chesterton’s personal assistant for the last decade of his life, was like the daughter that Gilbert Chesterton and his wife Frances never had (they couldn’t have children). She straightened out all his papers and dealt with their administrative details; she even drove them places. He dedicated Saint Thomas Aquinas to her:
WITHOUT WHOSE HELP THE AUTHOR
WOULD HAVE BEEN MORE
THAN NORMALLY HELPLESS
That’s who I would have liked to be. I would have liked to be Dorothy Collins.
As a matter of fact, in my next life, I’d like to come back as Chesterton’s secretary. Can you see me as a Dorothy? How about Dottie? Or maybe just Dot? Dot is quite a modern name isn’t it? If I introduced myself, it would sound like I’m about to say dot.com. “Hi, I’m Dot Collins.” That’s who I’ll be.
I guess I’m not allowed to choose to come back backwards – as in, I can’t hope to be born in 1894.
Let me think.
I can say that I was Dorothy Collins. I can say I am Dorothy Collins reincarnated as a Catholic blogger. There you go.
But does that mean that I was so good that I got elevated to being a Catholic blogger? Or does that mean that I was so bad that I had to be demoted to being a Catholic blogger? I suppose if she was a good person, then that means I’m better (you know, you get promoted if you’re good), which means that I shouldn’t want to be her, because she was an inferior version of me.
Or wait. She didn’t die until 1988, and I was around by then.
Okay, never mind.
I wasn’t and can’t be Dorothy Collins.
Hey . . . I just thought of something.
Chesterton died in 1936.
Isn’t that interesting?
Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
I wasn’t born yet. Or, to put it another way,
I. Wasn’t. Born. Yet.
Sooo, we might be on to something . . .
Or . . .
Or, maybe not.
Maybe not onto anything at all . . .
But anyway, where was I?
Ah yes, I was being a plastic bottle cap.
My point is that when I consider the abilities of Chesterton, and the size of some of these issues, I can’t help but be notice my own, well, my own non-Chesterton-ness. (My spell checker is acting like that’s not a word.)
And besides, on the topic of inadequacy, I know I’m a tiny dot in the blogosphere.
A voice says to me, “Who are you to think of challenging someone with Millions of Readers? You’re going to say he’s wrong?”
“And who are you?” exploded Vane. “Are your views necessarily the right ones? Are you necessarily in possession of the truth?”
“Yes,” said MacIan.
The magistrate broke into a contemptuous laugh.
— G.K. Chesterton “The Ball and the Cross” Chapter II “The Religion of the Stipendiary Magistrate”
You can’t help but think, who is going to care what I think? Should I even bother challenging someone who will probably never read what I say? And his readers don’t overlap with my readers so how would that work exactly?
On the other hand, WiseOne says that even if I had only 2 readers, it would still be worth the effort of writing about the issue, because those two readers are familiar with this idea, that everything happens for a reason, and its opposite.
And as a matter of fact, I do happen to have at least 2 readers.
There’s my dad, for starters. That’s one. (Hi Dad!)
And there’s CandidOne, who told me that she’s a subscriber. (Hi CandidOne!)
1 + 1 = 2
(My numbers are doubling right before your eyes.)
So there you go. Two avid readers.
Or maybe it sounds better like this: two avid readers.
(You are avid, right? Like, you don’t start skimming or anything, do you? You don’t go, “Hmm, how long is this post?” while you scroll to find the bottom, do you? Dad?)
I should change my subscriber page. The blogger who unknowingly provoked me encourages subscribing by saying, “Join thousands of readers.” (Well, actually, that’s what it said when I started this post. Today it says, “Join over 2 million yearly readers.” Apparently I’m not the only one with a Noticeable Increase.)
So mine is going to say, “Join 2 readers!”
That would be funny. A little misleading, of course, because there are more than two. (There’s you, for instance.) But still, funny.
But anyway, the truth is that feelings of inadequacy are good. When we see our weakness and inability, we’ve found a good starting point. You really can’t discuss the human person properly without talking about our tendency to err, to mess up. We’re so incredibly limited, even on our good days. Even on our good days, we misplace things, forget things, and mix up our words. Even on our good days, we’re prone to laziness, selfishness and hedonism. We want what’s comfortable, easy and pleasing.
When we focus on improving one aspect of our lives, the other aspects testify to our neglect. (Yesterday I was patient but today I kept my kitchen counters clean. The day before yesterday I wasn’t patient or tidy but boy, was I punctual!)
Acknowledging our limits is acknowledging the truth.
To discover our authentic self is to discover inadequacy. And as a matter of fact, authenticity is one of the side-effects of prayer – in those moments of being face-to-face with God, the masks that you might be wearing tend to fall away; in those quiet moments, we come nearer to perceiving ourselves as we really are.
(Does that make prayer easier or more difficult?)
It can be liberating to acknowledge our inadequacy and brokenness, and indeed, we can go ahead and acknowledge it as much as we want, provided that we follow two rules.
The first rule is that you mustn’t deny things for the sake of sounding humble. If you know that you’re a good singer, for example, you shouldn’t say, “I’m lousy at singing.” That’s not proper humility because humility is always grounded in truth. The truth might be that objectively speaking, you can really sing better than the average squirrel, and so you can acknowledge that. And there’s always this to think about: “Allow me to remind you that among other evident signs of a lack of humility are: . . . Speaking badly about yourself, so that they may form a good opinion of you, or contradict you . . .” (St. Josemaria Escriva, The Furrow, No. 263) (And you should see the other items on his list!)
The second is that you can’t despair. You can’t say that you’re so bad that you don’t deserve God’s love. You don’t get to decide things like that.
Despair, the feeling that your situation is too horrible for God’s mercy or compassion, is a big no-no, a big error. Everyone can start over, no matter what. There’s no excuse for despair in the face of God’s open arms.
But as long as you follow those two rules, you’re set. You can secretly rejoice or exult in your own inadequacy as the saints did. And if you do it properly, maybe you could go public with it, hosting an “I’m a Squished Plastic Bottle Cap” Celebration Dinner. Don’t fret if the casserole gets burnt and the salad is soggy; it’ll fit with the theme. Revel in your utter frailty and littleness. St. Thérèse of Lisieux was very pleased to claim for herself the littleness of a child – the child gets the most help, and is lifted right into the arms of her loving father.
I have a friend who will sometimes make a point of embellishing her supper table with a roll of toilet paper when she has dinner guests. She puts it there (instead of proper dinner napkins) because it instantly sets a laid-back mood: she wants to set her friends at ease. She wants the dinner to be about friendship, not Martha Stewart flair. And I remember hearing about how Bishop Fulton Sheen would adjust the buttons on his cardigan before a guest would arrive. He knew that many of them were intimidated about meeting him, and so he would make sure that the buttons didn’t line up properly. Seeing how even such a great man could make a silly mistake would make them feel less over-awed by him.
The point is that instead of hiding inadequacy, many good people almost flaunt it in order to be more welcoming.
Christianity is beautiful in the way that it acknowledges and recognizes the weakness of human nature – our inadequacy – while at the same time acknowledging the dignity and supremacy of the human being. Chesterton talked about this paradox in Orthodoxy.
He described how Christianity ‘saves’ two extremes so that they can co-exist in full force, without being cancelled out by each other. He gives lots of examples (for example, celebrating virginity and also fruitful matrimony), but the one I’m thinking about is his discussion about the pessimism about our human nature existing next to optimism about it, or you could say, between humility on the one side and hope on the other.
Christianity recognizes and validates all the natural human (rightful) disappointment with human frailty, while, at the same time – and this is the amazing thing – revealing the intended glorious destiny of the human person (the point of this life is beyond this life, says Chesterton).
So you have the fun of dramatically lamenting all the pathos of life as a human, while at the same time rejoicing in being the very apple of God’s eye. Both are legitimate expressions of what is true. There’s the sorrow of Good Friday and the glory of Easter Sunday – vigorous and wholesome contrast.
On the one hand, Man is great: “a statue of God walking about in the garden,” with a “pre-eminence over the brutes . . . not a beast, but a broken god.” His dignity is rightly expressed “in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage.”
On the other hand, Man is pathetic: “In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners.” The “abject smallness of man” is rightly expressed “in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.”
When one came to think of one’s self, there was vista and void enough for any amount of bleak abnegation and bitter truth. There the realistic gentleman could let himself go – as long as he let himself go at himself. There was an open playground for the happy pessimist. Let him say anything against himself short of blaspheming the original aim of his being; let him call himself a fool and even a damned fool; but he must not say that fools are not worth saving. He must not say that man, qua man, can be valueless. Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points. One can hardly think too little of one’s self. One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter VI: “The Paradoxes of Christianity”
In other words, Christianity proclaims that the correct balance is achieved by keeping both aspects – man is terribly broken and inadequate, but he is meant to be (and can be) terribly great.
To sum up thus far, the knowledge of our own inadequacy is fine, and Christianity even celebrates it. We don’t have to pretend to be super-heroes. In fact, we shouldn’t.
We’re all inadequate. We’re all bottle cap inadequate.
But the story doesn’t end there.
After all, there are different ways of living a bottle cap existence.
Humour me here:
Behind Door #1, we have the Egotist. He’s a bottle cap, but he doesn’t realize it. He’s full of himself and soothes his ego with knowledge of all of his successes. He stands on his ‘feet’ with the rim on the bottom. He believes he’s a giant. He won’t encourage others, because he has a mixture of pride (which tells him that others cannot compete with him) and fear (which tells him that others might compete with him).
Behind Door #2, we have the Realist. He’s a bottle cap, but at least he knows it. He says, “I might be nothing more than a bottle cap, but at least I’m standing.” And indeed, he also stands with the rim on the bottom. He may encourage others to stand, but it’s still about Self; it’s still about giving from your own stored-up knowledge and life experience. The answers are still coming from the mind of a bottle cap and not from something better or bigger. He struggles to point to anything beyond himself and sadly, he can almost sound like the Egotist.
Behind Door #3, we have the Undecided. He’s not sure what he is or where he’s going and he just rolls around everywhere. Then he gets recycled (that’s reincarnation) or something.
Behind Door #4, we have the Willing. He knows he’s a bottle cap, but instead of standing on his own, he is ‘face up’ – open to the heavens. He is capable of, and desirous of, being filled with something better than himself. He knows his own emptiness and inadequacy, but this inadequacy is just an opportunity. Sooner or later, the heavens will open, and this little guy is going to get filled up. Raindrops will collect and he’s going to be able to offer them to others. Even a squished bottle cap will have more to offer than one which is turned the other way, in defiant self-reliance.
In other words, you have to look outside yourself to find the answers.
We are all called to be filled up with the grace of God, Source of Truth, instead of ourselves, Source of Other Stuff.
On our own, we don’t have much to offer – we’re limited creatures – but when we’re willing to humbly accept that the truth is already out there, independent of us yet available to us, then we will receive something better than what we are on our own. God will fill us up with himself. And, as a matter of fact, our brokenness becomes our entitlement. “I come to call sinners.”
The saints did that – they responded to God’s invitation and by developing a relationship with him, they got more and more filled up with him. St. Paul had a lot to say about becoming a new person, which is much better than it sounds (it can sound like having a brain transplant), because it basically means becoming the best version of yourself; it means becoming the person God had wanted you to be all along. And God’s idea of you is infinitely better than your idea of you. We know how we are when we’re at our best (after that perfect mix of sleep, food, work, play, love, good news, etc.) but his idea of our best even beats that.
That’s why saints are captivating. When you meet a saint, you see something beyond the exterior person. You see and feel the beauty of a transformed person. You see ‘through’ them to Christ, who is pure goodness and love. It’s a lie that saints are difficult to live with; they are a consolation and a delight, and people gravitate to them.
Consider Mother Theresa. She’s a well-known example of what Christianity looks like when its lived authentically. She was completely transformed; she became another Christ, and she became a very attractive person.
She was a tiny frail-looking woman (who looked even shorter because she was all hunched over) but she radiated Christ’s love in all her words and her actions. She served the poorest of the poor in India, where the religion entrenched the idea of certain humans being ‘untouchable’ according to the laws of reincarnation and karma. And she spoke frequently about the need to care for that other group of vulnerable people, the unborn.
She became, by virtue of her relationship with Christ, someone with something to give. She became someone with Someone to give.
That’s the answer to our inadequacy. Go to God with open hands and an open heart; he will not hesitate to pour himself into your life, especially to the extent that he finds that you are empty and free from yourself. Your knowledge of your own unworthiness and inadequacy will draw him closer.
Then you, in turn, being filled with Christ, will naturally want to share what you have, and pour yourself out for others, as the saints did. I often think of the saying, “bonum diffusivum est sui” — goodness pours itself out.
So let’s happily acknowledge that we’re plastic bottle cap inadequate. It’s not bad news – it’s good! It’s not the end of a sad story, it’s the beginning of an undeserved but glorious one!
This calls for a celebration indeed!
I’m breaking out the burnt casserole and the soggy salad! The toilet roll is on the table! My sweater is adjusted! The spinach is in the teeth!
(You know where this is going . . . )
Pull up a chair and join two million other guests as we “rejoice in our infirmities.”
And so there is no need for me to grow up. In fact, it is just the opposite: I must stay little and become less and less. O God, you have gone beyond anything I hoped for and I will sing of Your mercies!
– St. of Liseiux, Autobiography, Chapter Nine
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
– St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 12:9