Mastery

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on May 22, 2020 # Lifestyle

When I first became paralyzed in 1996, I felt like I had hit rock bottom. My career was virtually non-existent, or at best dull and laborious, the family finances were in free fall, and then – ta-da! – I can’t move from T-10 down. I sat in that hospital bed for hours on end, staring at the ceiling, numb, confused, and scared. When people came by, I worked at putting on a cheery face, but the minute they left, I was back in the void. I was paralyzed in more ways than just my legs.

It was clear what I had to learn in those first days: how to function as a paralytic. This required effort, focus, and a positive feedback loop. It took me hours to learn to sit on the edge of the bed without falling over. (Balance is not one of my strong suits.) And then all the “activities of daily living” most people who are reading this know all about. At one rehab session I made a chocolate cake from a mix. I thought it was a singular achievement. My wife thought my giddiness was a sign of early-onset senility. Looking out over lake in wheelchair

Only later did I realize what was really going on with all these baby steps. I was learning to “master” paralysis. I was actually doing something, mostly on my own, and slowly getting better at it. And I was doing it for no one else but me! These seemingly small victories began to alter my outlook on everything. I stopped whining to myself that I was broken and useless. Through some kind of subconscious osmosis, I started building confidence that if I could lick the rudiments of paralysis, I could probably lick all those other, mostly self-made problems that a few weeks before seemed insurmountable.

Apparently this idea of mastery was talked about a lot during the Victorian Age, when for the first time in history, middle-class people had leisure time to fill. You practice any activity at which you have no previous level of expertise, experiencing gradual improvement over time. The psychological benefits follow.

I got that definition from a recent New York Times article on the value of mastery in an age of home confinement. Rather than sitting around doing utterly passive time-fillers like binge-watching the first season of “Parks and Rec” or surfing the news feed on Facebook, you decide to put all digital devices in a drawer and turn to something that you always wanted to do, and learn, and set out to get better at it.

A professor quoted in the article summed it up nicely: “the ability to generate activities by yourself for yourself, that is a real asset.” That doesn’t mean writing a novel or learning to be a ballet dancer. It means doing something manageable where you can see your progress in much less time that the 10,000 hours that author Malcolm Gladwell posits as the effort it takes to reach true expertise. Yeah, if you want to master Bach’s Six Cello Suites, but what if you desire to learn to do something much simpler that also provides pleasure and even fulfillment?

Like what, you ask? Like finding images you like, from any source, and putting together a collage. The Victorians loved to do that, simply for the creative release. As one amateur collager commented, “You’re just sticking stuff down and whatever happens, happens. It’s relaxing.” Another collage maker I came across called it “freeing.” The more you do, the more artful your collages.

The article talks about people who like to press flowers in old timey flower presses, make natural dyes to dye stuff, or learn to play the harp. They would be called Living Victorians, kind of like a homey version of Civil War reenactors. You might want to learn all the countries in Africa or how to draw a horse. There is nothing, by the way, that you can’t find explained in a tutorial on YouTube. I came across a dozen of them on how to get mold off your washing machine door. Then again, maybe home repair is not something that excites your creative juices.

Remember, you are doing this by yourself for yourself. You judge if it is fun to do or gives you a measure of satisfaction. You judge if you are making progress. If so, you are on the road to a form of mastery to which we all aspire: self-mastery.

Now, who wants to press some ferns?

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.