When 'calmpetence' trumps competence
Perhaps the calm we aspire to in a happy marriage is, in part, the calm that comes of being good at the craft of relationship.
Once or twice over the course of my childhood, my father said in passing something that has stuck with me. It was more confessional than him imparting fatherly wisdom. He said nothing satisfied him more sustainably than competence - far more than popularity, fame, status, wealth, power or love.Now, 62, I've found that to be true. Competence makes me self-contented, at peace with myself, relieved from the questions that nagged me in my early years, always wondering how I was doing or whether I should be doing something else.
Sometimes my competence makes me proud to be me, but rarely. The sustainable satisfaction is in having a groove to dwell in, a groove so deep and snug that I'm not rattling around or peering out, envious, wondering if there are better grooves elsewhere or if my groove is going to turn into a rut.
It's called flow but that's not very descriptive. I'd call it calmpetence. The calm self-unawareness that comes of competence, getting lost in one's crafts. We know calmpetence by its absence. When we experience our incompetence we're rattled, self-conscious, self-doubting.
Spiritualists sometimes urge us to counter self-consciousness by becoming egoless, a different kind of losing yourself. The only way I've ever been able to get my self-conscious ego to calm down was through the distraction of calmpetence. My ego doesn't get smaller or go away; it recedes, out of sight out of mind. I get lost in my craft. The pursuit of calmpetence is obsessive-compulsive without being a disorder.
Paradoxically, having some craft to fuss over makes us less fussy.
With calmpetence, I don't care about what I'm doing so long as I keep doing it competently, meeting or exceeding my own expectations, as the poet, Sharon Olds put it, like a runner, "a single body alone in the universe against its own best time."
If we could afford to add more human rights to the ones we're not honouring now, the pursuit of calmpetence would be a good one. Every human deserves a crack at it. Nothing breeds contentment quite like it.
Calmpetence is as desirable as the romantic unions we crave, a marriage of you and your craft, with you affirmed by your competence at it. Perhaps the calm we aspire to in a happy marriage is, in part, the calm that comes of being good at the craft of relationship. Since relationship is so important to us growing up we seek competency at that craft. Looking back on my breakups I remember my grief as flooded with a sense of my relationship incompetence.
I recently asked a 92-year-old man why he still walks to temple every day. Was it to ensure a place in heaven?
"No," he said, "It's because I know how." He knows the prayers and rituals. It's his craft. He's an accomplished, competent congregant. Maybe calmpetence is a large part of what people get out of religion too. They've got the rituals down.
But calmpetence can come from any craft, whatever makes your motor hum:
Knitting, cooking, video games, dance, art, wine connoisseurship, athletics, collecting, computing, cleaning, driving, music, or some particular idea, some article of faith you know inside and out and can defend competently.
As with finding the best spouse, embracing ideas may be less about finding the right one and more about the calming relief of no longer searching because you're calmpetent defending the one you've already got. People often cling to their ideas but maybe they're clinging to their competence at defending them against, their bubble as shelter. We often swell with pride when defending what we believe. Maybe it's our ability to defend them that makes them proud, and not the ideas.
There will be cults that draw followers impressed primarily by the leader's skill at just that kind of calmpetence, leaders who show no competence other than a dazzling ability to disparage all competences but their own and followers as dazzled by it as my father was by bagpipers or I was by rock stars.
Whatever floats your boat so long as you're not a destroyer whose calmpetence comes of sinking other people's boats. Whatever makes your motor hum so long as it isn't a Sawzall or buzz saw cutting down others to carve out your cozy, rattle-free groove.
Jeremy Sherman is a biophilosopher and social science researcher studying the natural history and everyday practicalities of decision making