I am feeling pleasantly stiff today from a bout of fencing yesterday. Not the constructive type; the kind where you endeavour to hit someone else with a yard-long piece of metal. It’s constructive in a quite different way, of bruises and oddly asymmetrical muscles and fun.
This is my third time around coming back to fencing. Or maybe the fourth — it depends on whether this counts as the same as my summer efforts. I started in high school, when we moved to Calgary and suddenly there was the opportunity to take a fencing class, something I’d wanted to do probably since my father read The Hobbit to my sister and me. I continued in the first two years of university, and was very happy and very bad at it. Then a hiatus of several years; I fenced a bit again in Calgary, before my parents moved to Prince Edward Island; then this summer I decided I missed it. Of course, after a month I was swamped by work, but I’ve re-emerged into the light and air and have taken it up again.
I am still very happy to be doing it and still very bad at it. But that’s quite okay. I think it’s important to do things we’re bad at but enjoy. G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay ‘in defense of the amateur’, where he argues that over-specialisation is a great detriment to the soul’s health. He argues that all things worth doing are worth doing badly. He was writing in the early twentieth century; a hundred years on and I think we’re seeing the true effects of that kind of thing.
It’s more efficient if the experts do things, true: but there is a cost in the idea that things are not worth doing unless they’re done well. All the things that are truly worth doing are worth doing badly. All the creative and liberal arts, for example; all sports; most everything except business, and does anyone argue that that truly opens the soul? All the creative parts of business are open to the amateur, who designs apps or what-have-you along with the professionals. Should we not cook because we are not great chefs? Not paint, however badly? Not read about cosmology because we will never be an astrophysicist? Feel the great age of the amateur, the nineteenth century, is long over?
I used to fence with people who were excellent; I believe one of the sabre fencers went to the Beijing Olympics. I was the worst university fencer in Eastern Ontario for two years running. My goal was to be the second-worst fencer in Eastern Ontario the second year: I did not achieve this goal. No doubt this was, and is, good for my character development. I can be a slowly-improving fencer the rest of my life, and never lose pleasure in it.
I will never be good at fencing, let alone great. But there are those side benefits: The amateur, the lover, lives the romance of life.