Saturday, June 28, 2008

Mastery, Revisited

There was a time once when I had a prestigious job title. It would have been very easy to be arrogant by virtue of holding that position alone, very easy to look down one's nose at other more "common" folks.

As chance would have it, one day I took a break and stepped out of my office into the hall heading toward the bathrooms and vending machines. The floor was undergoing some renovation and the hall was filled with the smell of wet paint. Walking the hall, just ahead of where the new paint tapered off were two tradesmen, a younger guy and and an older fellow, both in coveralls. They were doing finishing work on the drywall ahead of the painters.

In the time it took me to walk this hall, in a few simple motions of his trowel the older man perfectly finished a seam between two panels.

It is a very ordinary scene, but I cannot describe adequately how the sight stunned me and haunts me to this very day...

The man was not gabbing with his coworker; to see him, you might wonder if he moved out of habit or if his mind was even there to perform what to me would have been labeled mundane drudgery. Seeing him move, though, it was clear that this was not the case: his work had his full attention; he was clearly present. What he produced was not perfection by virtue of an eye for detail, an artist revisiting a rough draft adding or subtracting, second-guessing, until the portrait was just so; rather, this was work akin to that of a master Zen calligrapher: whether the movements were large or small, each stroke was simply perfect and complete.

Without looking back, the pair moved along to the next seam.

And so it was. Ichi-e, Ichi-go.

It was blatantly obvious that this man was a master, and I was deeply affected and humbled. In spite of any disparity in our social castes, that "drywall guy" had attained some level of perfection that I was not likely to find where I was.

I don't know if later this fellow went home, got drunk, kicked his dog, or beat his wife. I don't know if he was devoutly religious, took care of his dying parents, or if he lost work opportunities through rushing home to see a kid's ball games or dance recitals. Who knows? All that was clear to me was that, in that moment, this fellow was a master.

A sword cut. Serving tea. The stroke of an ink brush. Arranging flowers. Pruning a tree. A poem. A boxer beating his opponent senseless. Laying bricks. Applying mud to drywall seams. Helping a child with homework. Preparing dinner. A kiss. Living. Dying.

What is mastery anyway?

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