Last night in the intensive-care unit, someone said of the patient we were visiting: "He was a master of his craft."
That craft was drinking. Jaundice made the patient, now sedated, look sculpted from butter. He spent decades, including the day he reached the hospital, addicted to the substances that led him here. He had ingested these in massive quantities, devised ingenious means of getting them, assembled his whole world around them, risking everything on their behalf.
That word "craft" struck me like a salty wave because, in my book Unworthy, I proposed that we all consider ourselves master craftspersons. We can't all master those few skills Western society most fetishizes: singing, say. Or sports. But everyone is gifted at something.
Most such crafts aren't technically crafts. Empathy, for example—or serenity, scholarship, friendship, parenting, playfulness, neatness, justice. Passion. Picking perfect presents. Staying solvent. Solacing. Add in those million hands-on crafts, from art to astrophysics.
One day last week, I met a stranger on a train. We spoke of jewels. We spoke of ghosts. We discussed dissecting earthworms in high-school science classrooms an ocean apart. We discussed people—including her cousin—who believe themselves demon-possessed. We discussed loneliness, and how it sometimes suddenly descends at Disneyland.
We talked for nearly two hours, eyes meeting in I-totally-get-it unity, until our ride ended and I realized how dissimilar we—on the surface—seemed. One-third my age, athletic (I'm not), single (I'm not), she speaks a language at home that I don't understand. Also, I am an introvert, unwilling to engage in frequent chat. Yet we spoke—gladly. Why?
I knew why, and I told her: She's a master craftsperson. Her craft is conversation, a vanishing art in this ever-more-texted world: Ask questions. Absorb answers. Think. Respond. She wants to hear not only her own voice but also yours.
Those of us who believe ourselves incapable of any skills will find it challenging to call ourselves masters of anything except failure and waste. If you wrote compliments in fireworks and shot them into the night sky for the next ten years, I might not notice them—or might, but say No way. This is not disingenuosity. This is low-self-esteem-legit.
Humility is virtuous, thus is another craft. But somewhere between virtuous humility and gruesome narcissism is a space where we can say, even if only ever to ourselves: I am the master of at least one craft. And it is....
Navigation. Badminton. Goldsmithery. Practical jokery. Or is it:
Algebra? Strength during crises? Caring for pets? Punctuality?
But what if your craft, like that of the person in the ICU, would devastate your parents, make you break laws, maybe take your life? What if mastering it makes you a hero to whomever shares that passion, but a villain or a victim in most other eyes?
What if the craft you master occupies the gray haze between "positive" and "negative"? What if yours is a virtuosity entailing talent, training, will and skill and while neither lethal nor illegal arguably silly, selfish, crazy, irksome, worthless? Daydreaming, say. Collecting nail clippings. Complaining. Lying.
Should we embrace our mastery of even these—or worse—for the sake of our self-esteem? Is it good—or good for us—to consider ourselves the masters of something, anything, rather than at-best-mediocre on all counts?
How would that patient in the ICU feel if he heard someone call him a master—even someone speaking sadly and sarcastically, yet earnestly?
Were we in such beds, what would they say about us?