Alexander Hellene

Crisis of Competence

It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.

Robert W. Service

I am getting older. Sometimes I resent getting older. I resent the loss of youth, of beauty, of vitality, of untapped possibilities and the very real feeling like I was on the verge of something great, that the best was yet to come, that the future could only be brighter.

But a funny thing happens when the hair starts turning gray and sleep becomes more of a non-negotiable necessity: you pick up a little wisdom, a little perspective along the way.

Nobody really ever “makes it.” You make it when your dead. Life is a constant battle to acquire knowledge and wisdom. You are born dumb—if that sounds mean, that is not the intent. Babies are not stupid as a concept, but they are stupid on an intellectual level. Human beings cannot walk upon birth, cannot communicate beyond crying. That gigantic, marvelous, complex brain takes years to grow. And grow we do, spending every moment growing less stupid.


In any event, when one enters into middle-age, what stares them in the face is the unavoidable question that has plagued mankind for all of its existence: Is this it?

What’s it all about? Why am I doing what I’m doing? Is there a point to it? Will there be anything more?

Caught in the grind of a day job required to pay the obligations you have to take on, even though nobody forced you, for the simple reason that there is nowhere else to go. No frontier to explore. No destiny to manifest. No ability to just pack up and abscond out west where you will be left alone. There is nowhere left to be left alone.

Living off the grid is verboten in the freest nation to ever have come into existence in all 10,000-plus years of human history. You will be tagged, numbered, and plunged into debt from the moment of your conception. There is no way out of this. No physical escape.

Which is why the frontiers of today turn to the mind.

The mind . . . is it much less of a tempter than the heart? Is the mind any more reliable, more trustworthy when it is bent on desires than the organ we are warned against?

No, not that one. I’m still talking about the heart in your chest. And the brain in your head.

A message to young people: as you come face-to-face with the realization that you will not be able to “live your dreams” just because you’re you, you have to also come face-to-face with the realization that that’s okay.

It doesn’t matter if you won’t be a professional, well-loved artist, or writer, or musician, or actor, or woodworker, or potter, or athlete. What matters is that you continue to do these things as you can, in any capacity. That you use your gifts to create, to become small icon of a bigger Divine who has imbued you with the power to conjure something out of nothing.

Don’t pursue the creative task because you want to. Pursue it because you have to.

*     *     *

As one gets older, one also wants to give back.

I may be wired differently than my peers, but I like young people. I want young people to succeed, to kick ass, to do better than my generation. After all, before too long, you will literally be running the world. I think that boat has passed my generation, and the generation taking charge now has been disgustingly maleducated by the generations above me, but you young people still coming into your own? You have a chance to really right this ship.

I also don’t hate people my age or older. And I think I’ve gotten somewhat close to what a lot of us are feeling. I generally speak for men, since that is the only sex I have, and will ever have, experience being, but I have no doubt in my mind that it applies to women as well.

Modern civilization can make us feel useless.

Our wonderful system views us as consumers with every interaction an economic transaction. Efficiency, cost-cutting, getting the better of some other poor sucker in a deal—everything is a game, and he who has the most money at the end of each round is not only the winner but the morally superior person.

Tribe, family, kin, faith, beauty . . . all anathema to the system hellbent on scarfing down the world and barfing it back up in its awful image. All you have to look forward to from the moment you enter a government-run school to the moment you enter into the workforce, endlessly entertained and educated just enough to pull the lever for the correct person every two-to-four years, you’ll be left alone.

The system wants you to live your life, not notice, and accept the new programming without question. Think about a circuit board—the electrical current can only go the way that the path allows it to. The road goes where it’s led, right? No deviation from the norm.

It’s hard to feel like a real human being in a situation like this.

Crisis of confidence? I think what we have is a crisis of competence. Sure, you know how to make the numbers all line up on a computer screen, but you can’t even start a fire, navigate without your iPhone, grow a vegetable, hunt game and prepare it for cooking.

You feel like a broken link the never-ending chain of humanity, perhaps the weakest link that there ever was. And you don’t like it.

You want to do. You want to create. And your hobbies, your art, can give you that feeling.

Maybe I’m just speaking for myself. Maybe this is all projection. But given conversations I have been a part of lately, lamentations that the day-to-day eats up too much time, that the product of one’s creative endeavors just seems to be getting nowhere, I do not think I am alone in feeling these feelings.

A Minor Exhortation

People want to feel useful. That at the end of the day they can look back and say “I did that.” This is very difficult for the desk-drone, email-job, spreadsheet-spreader person. What did you create? Ephemeral paperwork. Digital files. A whole lot of virtual nothing, which is just as good as the real thing.

And so you have hobbies. You do things like a true amateur, for the love of it. Whatever it is that keeps you sane, you do it when you can, even though it’s not bringing in enough income to replace the day job. Or any income.

It’s the enjoyment you derive that keeps you going. It’s the feeling that you’re contributing something, no matter how small, to the world, and that tiny little piece, no bigger than a grain of sand, that is your handiwork is good.

It can feel like a pointless endeavor. Sometimes you look at all of the time and effort spent on that painting, that table you’re building, that sculpture you’re carving, that book you’re writing, that song you’re playing, that quilt you’re sewing, and ask yourself why you even bother. Nobody will see it. Nobody will hear it. Nobody will read it.

But as cliché as it sounds, you never know.

If you exist in this space, the realm of the independent creator, I’m sure this feeling is unavoidable from time to time, especially if it costs you money. But I challenge you to recalibrate your thinking a little bit by listening to this old guy.

What’s the difference between going to a casino and blowing a few hundred dollars, or going to a sporting event, or a concert, or a fancy restaurant, or out drinking with your buddies, and spending money on your art?

Nothing. In all cases, you are spending money on things that bring you pleasure. But with your art, it can bring you more than a quick thrill soon forgotten.

Think about it that way, and it will feel far less pointless.

Second, as Edward White asks in this excellent piece, what does what you do add?  

What you’re doing is stacking wins. Tiny wins. And other like-minded people are stacking their tiny wins atop yours, and yours atop theirs, and so on.

Maybe it’s all just grains of sand. But if you stack up enough grains of sand, you get a mountain.

Think about that.

– Alexander

Sometimes I feel like I don’t write enough, but then I remember that I’m doing what I can and that–hey!–I’ve published five books! Check out one of them now!

2 thoughts on “Crisis of Competence”

  1. Alexander,

    I’m doing my part. I’m writing. Also I’m trying to translate St Thomas Aquinas De Regno (on kingship) It’s kind of daunting as it’s 500 pages and my dictionaries aren’t the greatest but good enough. At least the internet can help out.


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