Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Knack

Doctor: "It's worse than I feared."
Mother: "What is it?"
Doctor: "I'm afraid your son has ... the Knack."
Mother: "The knack?"
Doctor: "The Knack. It's a rare condition characterized by an extreme intuition about all things mechanical and electrical ... and utter social ineptitude."
Mother: "Can he lead a normal life?"
Doctor: "No. He'll be an engineer."
Mother: "Oh, no! [crying]"
Doctor: "There, there. Don't blame yourself."

Source: "Dilbert" animated TV show, season 1, episode 9
(Curious? find clips online or watch the whole thing on Netflix)
How is it that some people can go to a place once and know how to find it again, while others regularly miss turns to get to their own houses or workplaces? Is it a matter of "knack"? Why do some learn the rules of writing and expression, or science and logic - retaining and applying those standards with a high level of consistency - while others never seem to grasp or internalize them? Concentration and persistence can overcome many a weakness, but most of us will only persevere in the areas where we expect to find success - in the areas of our strengths.

The sad part is this: Why do we have such a hard time resisting the urge to defend our gifts while denigrating those of other people? Why are we so tempted to look down on those who have talents that differ from our own, or mock those who struggle with what we see as simple?

Hubs showed me "The Knack" episode when I expressed surprise that his technological abilities are based less on knowledge than... magic. He doesn't always know how our stuff works and he can't teach me, but his intuition tends to be spot-on when we are dealing with anything sporting a battery or power cord.

Since my knacks lie in different areas (and probably because I'm a sinner), I'm tempted both to envy and to slyly undermine his abilities. I try to remember it's in everyone's best interest that I appreciate them and offer praise and affirmation instead.

I bought a new printer-scanner-photocopier for work and left it in the box for several weeks. When I finally tried to set it up I faced two hours of frustration trying to get it to work. I read all the instructions and studied the diagrams but could not get the ink cartridges inserted properly. "They're upside down," said Hubs, solving the problem in two minutes. You'll be glad to know I didn't hit him.

So. I think appreciating other people may be more important than figuring out your own best fit. Though many of us fall pretty far short in the latter, as well. And that can hamper us from living a fruitful and satisfying life. One's own soul is worth exploring.
Make a careful exploration of who you are
and the work you have been given,
and then sink yourself into that.
Don’t be impressed with yourself.
Don’t compare yourself with others.
Each of you must take responsibility
for doing the creative best you can
with your own life.

Galatians 6:4-5 (as rendered in Eugene Peterson's The Message)
Recently I started doing some writing/editing for a website/ministry called My work is fairly invisible at present. Give it some time and I think you'll see the quality and consistency of the contents creeping up. (I have a knack...)

The basic idea is that people who think they want to be missionaries come to the website with their questions, and people who are (or have been), answer them. And the best thing is that when all goes as it is supposed to, they don't get just one perspective, but several.

Rather than populating the database with endless variations of a question we try to steer the reader towards similar queries, only adding new questions and answers when we think they enrich the whole thing (though everybody gets a personalized response, directly).

Think of it as a Dear Abby for the missions world.

In conversations with mission recruiters I had heard that more and more potential missionaries are starting their inquiries with questions about whether or not they can use their college degree or specific skill in missions, and if so, where and how. Others, maybe younger or earlier in the process, are asking what kind of education or career they should pursue if they want something that can be used on the field. That sounds a little better; it may suggest openness and willing to do what is most needed, or it may point to a lack of self-knowledge and "calling." Hard to say.

Many of the questions that come into are right along those lines - people trying to figure out if there's a place for them. "I am interested in studying optometry," asks an 18-year-old from Texas. "Will this be useful in the mission field? In what ways, if so?"

Oftentimes I can think of someone I know or have heard about who is using that exact skill in their ministry. In this case, John, our big ally in the medical world, was ready with a pithy response. He said:
Optometry is wonderful on short-term missions trips. For examples see (link to The Fellowship of Christian Optometrists). But almost everyone I know who does full-time healthcare missions overseas is in another specialty. We have answers online on that. Please click on the below question links to read those answers:
...Do we publish their correspondence or not? I'm not sure. As I said, we don't think we should add every new question that comes in. We may already have enough content on medical missions.

Anyway, I want to push back. Here's why.

I think "knack" is at least as important as training or credentials. Many people minister more out of their life experiences, convictions, and personal interests than out of the kinds of things that make it onto a resume. And, as theologian Frederick Buechner said, “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world's greatest need.”

I also have a hunch that calling and flexibility trump them all. Life on the field is full of twists and turns. Most people doing work wrapped up in the mission of God end up doing something different from what they told themselves or their parents or supporters, what they heard from the recruiter, or found on the job description.

Nothing new with that. Didn't Jesus invite prostitutes and tax collectors into service that had nothing to do with sensuality or extortion? When he mobilized fishermen, didn't he tell them to drop their nets and work as evangelists ("fishers of men") and give a doctor (Luke) a job as a storyteller? Wonder what Luke's parents, if they were still alive, thought about that one? ("After all we sacrificed, you're going to throw it all away to become a writer?!") Jesus himself was trained as a carpenter but considered himself a shepherd and teacher instead.

As the fishermen's story suggests, many re-purpose their skills rather than discarding them.

Work is good, even holy. But let's not take our careers (or ourselves) too seriously. Let's hold our college degrees and job descriptions lightly. I know it's hard. Titles and salaries and performance get so easily intertwined with our sense of identity. No matter what our job, no matter what our knack.

See also: On Mission in an Uncertain World (Missions Catalyst) and Gift-Based Ministry Mobilization (previously on Telling Secrets).


Chelsea said...

I appreciate your expression of "knack" and have experienced this in my life and seen it in others. I have my gifts and talents, some honed, others raw, some developed through classes and training, others simply through practice, practice, practice. Our education is the sum of all our learned experiences. But sometimes we feel that the education that didn't result in a certificate is less valid. But sometimes it's the knack and practice in the knack that best expresses the Lord's hand in and through us. But also surrender of the knack, laying it on the altar and letting the Lord lead each of us into new territories outside our natural strengths, shows each of us and those around us the Lord's strength in our weakness & inability. Thanks for sharing, Marti!

Megan Noel said...

Finn has the knack and he's not even 3 yet.

There is a stage in fetal development when the fetus, if it is a boy, starts producing testosterone. As a result of this, there is a section of the brain that atrophies. It's the section where the 2 hemispheres connect. At the same time, the development of another section is enhanced. This is the section that deals with things like spacial orientation.

For what it is worth to you, evolutions theorize that men were adapted to suit the roles society deemed their roles - hunting, and defense. Women are adapted to suit their traditional roles - gathering taking care of the family, and caregiving. Their abilities to communicate seemed more developed.

I read about this in A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman.

:“What is most amazing is not how our senses span distance or cultures, but how they span time. Our senses connect us intimately to the past, connect us in ways that most of our cherished ideas never could.”