The art of improvement

The downside of getting better is being able to look back and see how much worse you used to be. This is true of just about everything. A more sensitive soul will look back at where they were and what they used to do, and cringe, or feel badly and this can be a hindrance to development. It also makes the process a far less happy one.

Stasis is easy. Leave school, stop learning, don’t do anything new, settle into a few safe ruts and get on with your ‘life’, never doing anything that might give you pause for thought or reason for discomfort. There are many people out there who consider themselves good enough already, or imagine that they would be brilliant if they could afford to put in the time. I’ve encountered my share of folks who ‘know’ they’d be at least as good a writer as I am if only they had the time. These are not people who write anything, mind you, they just know it is so. They will never test themselves, never find out and never write anything (or do anything else of note). They have chosen to be safe and comfortable and not to risk failure.

To be a bard is to seek creative excellence. You can’t progress unless you acknowledge that it is possible to be better than you are now. It is always possible to improve – technique, presentation, insight, experience, stagecraft, speed, memory… and many others. There is no point of completion in the life of a bard, no time at which you can say ‘I am perfect and now I don’t need to try anymore.’

To be a Druid is to make the same commitment to your spiritual life. It’s not the case that once you finish a given course that’s it and you’re qualified, and can rest on your mistletoe. It is always possible to improve, to know more, hold deeper empathy and connection, achieve greater insight and compassion, there is always more work to be done.

Committing yourself to any kind of path, means recognising that you aren’t everything you could be, and never will be. A path is a continuous journey. Folk who want to achieve fixed things so they can stop bothering need to get themselves on courses and take exams after which they are ‘qualified’ because a path will never give them that sense of completion. To be a bard, a Druid, or a person on any other spiritual or creative path is to acknowledge that you are never going to be done, never going to be totally satisfied and able to stop bothering. It is all about the bothering, and being the kind of person for whom that matters. To do it, you have to be willing to challenge yourself all the time.

Inevitably there are days when you look back, at an old piece of work, or a way you used to behave, and wince, because from where you are now, it looks awful. Did I really say that? Did I actually wear a picnic blanket to a ritual? Did I truly believe that a call for peace meant shouting ‘peace’ at the top of my voice? Did I really think that was a good way to use a paintbrush? Did I actually try and sell that…. thing? Looking back and cringing is one way of knowing that you’ve progressed. It also raises the continual suspicion that in years to come, you might look back at now, and feel equally silly. Sometimes we need to do that.

Judging ourselves is part of the learning process. But it’s just one aspect. Balance it out by imagining how you would have felt back then had you known what you would be capable of now. Note the distance covered, you have every right to take pride in it. Recognise yourself as a work in progress, and everything you do as process. There is no end point, no time when it’s all done and you can forget about it. You have chosen a life that is never going to let you off the hook. And you’ve chosen it because you know that it is life, and the not-bothering option is like being a zombie. Walk your path with the confidence and delight that comes from knowing it is worth it.

(For Denarius, who made me realise that I needed to write this.)

3 Responses

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brynneth, The Pagan & the Pen. The Pagan & the Pen said: *New Article* The art of improvement: The downside of getting better is being able to look b… http://bit.ly/gnz8ho The Pagan & the Pen [...]

  2. When I read your article, I thought “it feels as if brynneth is talking directly to me” and then I saw your last paragraph. Thank you.
    I have recently started the bardic training course and going back in time to the wisdom of our ancestors and also back in time to consider my own life.
    I certainly do not like the way I acted in the past and, as you say, inwardly cringe at these memories. It is too late now to make amends to some of the people I hurt because they have passed on, but I feel I can learn from these mistakes.
    Your words help and inspire me to move on and walk my path knowing it is worth it realising that I shall always be learning and progressing.
    Bless you, brynneth, for your help – I have been in mental anguish over these problems.

  3. Well said Bryn. You can’t change the past, only learn from it. I’m always puzzled when asked “What do you regret?” or “If you could change one thing in your past, what would it be?” (Why do people do that? Why is that a topic of conversation? ;D!) because I don’t regret. To me, the word implies that I carry sorrow or harbor a wish that I could go back and change what happened. I don’t. There are things I wince about, things that cause pain… but I do not ever want to go back and change the past. Everything that has come before, made me who I am today. I have caused troubles, I have had troubles caused to me.. but I cannot change the past. Carrying around regret for things I cannot change, is like carrying around hate. It’s negative, hurts, and doesn’t help. Maybe I am being too picky about the word, sorry :) I do understand the need to learn from my own personal history and to see and accept the mistakes that came before so I can learn and grow. This is good.
    On a lighter note.. my little girl (7) was recently going through an old journal and thought she needed to re-write it because her spelling and handwriting wasn’t very good (the child fills notebooks!). She wasn’t ashamed, just confused why she had done such a bad job … I had to remind her that she was at least a year younger when she wrote that book and still learning and she has come a long way. A long way, from where? We had a good talk about life being a path that we travel, and that we learn as we go.

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