Is it better to be able to do something well or to just look like you are able to do something well?
There are times I feel that I have no idea what I’m doing but I’m really, really good at faking it. A great part of my own personal angst in life centers on this theme. I have been and am now involved in many things that I feel completely under-qualified for and under-skilled in. In the unlikely event that I might write my autobiography, I have a ready-made title: Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain!
Of course, you recognize that reference; “The Wizard of Oz” is permanently embedded in our communal pop-cultural cortex. There are many subversively profound adult issues hiding in this unforgettable children’s story. All the Big Questions are there: “Who Am I?”, “Why Am I Here?”, “What is the Meaning of Life?”, “Why Do Flying Monkeys Freak Me Out?”. Likely there is something in the tale of the Yellow Brick Road that resonates with you; maybe it is the search for personal courage; a longing for home; a life journey with unlikely fellow travelers. Certainly, there are many aspects of the L. Frank Baum classic that draw us in and reach us on a deeply personal level. For me, it is that moment when Toto pulls the curtain back to reveal the true “wizard”: the Kansas snake oil salesman who is feverishly working levers, pushing buttons, spinning the whazzit, pulling the thingamabob. We find out then who is behind all the impressively Technicolor pyrotechnics, booming voice and freaky floating green head.
As a child, I was always disappointed by this pedestrian man and his pathetic circus tricks. Just like I could never accept that Dorothy’s adventures were just a dream – that my favorite character, the Scarecrow, was just a lanky farmhand – so I never came to terms with a common shyster pulling off the Great and Powerful shtick. I didn’t get it. He certainly never became one of the beloved denizens of Oz in my imagination.
Isn’t it ironic, then, that as an adult I find myself more and more able to relate to the most uninspiring character in “The Wizard of Oz”? Like the pseudo-wizard, I have often found myself transported into situations where I have had to rely on an ability to make things up as I go along. The first time this happened to me is when I was less-than magically transported to Wisconsin to serve as an intern pastor for a small church in a small town. Arriving there for the year, I came with two – count ’em, two – sermons under my belt, written for a seminary course. I agreed to serve there knowing I’d be expected to craft two sermons every Sunday! So from two to potentially 104 (52 Sundays x 2… do the math). My first message for that church was handwritten on notebook paper as I sat at a picnic table at the local park. I had no office, no computer to work on, many books still packed… Making it up as I go along, indeed!
This should have been an omen for my so-called professional life to come. Amazingly way back then all the way up to this very day – as I continue to put messages together to preach to the current church I serve – I have the same thought running through my head as I had almost twenty years ago when I get up to speak: “What Am I Doing Here?” I never finished seminary, do not hold the coveted Masters of Divinity degree, often have never had a proper study, am lacking in many commentaries and other resources, yet I’ve prepared and preached hundreds of sermons over the years. You’d think all that experience would make me self-confident and assured of my abilities. Instead, I remain convinced that one day a little Toto dog will appear in my life and reveal That Man Behind the Curtain and people will see that it’s just unimpressive, pedestrian me: someone skilled in the fine art of faking it, that is all.
Why do these thoughts assail me? Maybe I just have a terminal case of the humilities. Yet I feel a lot of the same things in my other job, as a personal support worker for an adult day program in Ottawa. We serve adults with a variety of developmental disabilities. I work with many gifted people who bring a great deal of talents and experiences to the table. Over the last few months I have become the designated guitarist and song leader in the place. To me, this is another example of the ludicrousness of my life for the simple reason that I cannot play the guitar! There are a couple of exceptional guitarists at the program, guys who can really, really play. Yet there I am, a few times a week, chugging away in my own extremely unexceptional way on that guitar. I know about 12 chords, my strum patterns would make a guitar teacher cringe, and I could teach someone what I know on the guitar in about a half an hour. Again: “What Am I Doing Here?”
What causes me anxiety in these situations is that people seem to really enjoy what I do. They are genuinely moved and gratified for what I do for them. Yet in the back of my mind is an image of myself putting on a show for people – pulling levers, pushing buttons, spinning the thingamajig; wowing folks with a pretence of competence and skill; a patina of shiny impressiveness covering a poorly-made pot with feet of clay.
I do take comfort in one thought, however: That pseudo-wizard of Oz turned out to be a nice guy trying to do his best in a very unusual situation. In fact, he helped Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion find exactly what they were looking for. Somehow, even though he was not who they thought he was, he turned out to be exactly what they needed. In fact, it was his ability to fake it that drove the heroes of the story on to confront their fears, take the risks, deepen their understanding of themselves, and gain self-confidence. Ultimately, he may have been a bit of a disappointment but what came of all his pseudo-wizardly machinations was profound.
He didn’t really have the chops to be the Great and Powerful Oz but what he did have still motivated people towards something Great and Powerful in their lives. Considering this gives me some insight into the answer to the question: “What Am I Doing Here?” I am a common man with common abilities, nothing more. Yet, when you think about it, it is the common people who have all effected us the most in our life journeys. We all have humble and unexceptional examples in our lives who have had a lifelong and exceptional impact on us and our growth as human beings.
Maybe, instead of being filled with anxiety about being exposed as That Man Behind the Curtain, I should embrace that role. Maybe instead of considering it as “faking it”, I should realize that it’s more like taking what little skill you have and using it to the max. Instead of angst and self-loathing, maybe there should be joy and wonder that someone so common can still be used for uncommon purposes.
Here’s a link to classic “Man Behind the Curtain” scene: http://youtu.be/NZR64EF3OpA