Learning About Myself by Reading a Neighbor’s Obituary

Obituaries rarely capture my attention, but one I read this morning did. It was the death notice of the neighbor who died almost two weeks ago. The obituary told the story of his long life in a truly loving way, honoring his accomplishments, his interests, and his loves and passions, illustrating how they were so intricately intertwined with one another. I did not know the man as well as I would have liked; his obituary told me things about him, though, that reinforced my sense that he was a genuinely good person. Not just superficially good, but good deep down. The obit also caused me to reflect on my interests because this man’s interests were so varied: fly-fishing, playing pool, lapidary work, stained glass, silversmithing, woodworking, magic, woodcarving and golf. Each of those hobbies require both interest and discipline; a person has to be able to focus intensely on them to achieve a depth of skill that brings the level of satisfaction necessary to enjoy them. But maybe the skill is not the important thing; maybe it’s simply the satisfaction of doing something enjoyable.

I think the breadth of his interests illustrates the depth of his engagement with life. That concept is, for me, a bit hard to understand and explain; yet it’s so clear to me as I think on it. Adequate words to describe the idea elude me. The fact that this man earned his doctoral degree and taught at the college level for many years while spending time outside the classroom engaged in such diverse hobbies intrigues me. I appreciate what must have been the richness and intellectual range that such diversity suggests. Perhaps the intensity of focus required to attain a doctoral degree teaches one how to apply that same intensity to what, for me, would be a casual and short-lived interest.

My interests are just as broad as his, I think, but not as deep. And my discipline sometimes seems nonexistent.  For a short time, I was fascinated with welding and metal-working. I enjoyed it immensely. But my interest and involvement went only as far as the night class in metal arts that I took. Though I was extremely interested, I was unwilling (or, perhaps, unable) to invest in the equipment I would need to continue the hobby at home. The same thing is true of my interest in working with clay. I enjoyed pottery-making and mask-making for a couple of years or more, but when circumstances changed that prevented my free access to a studio at my leisure, I stopped. I was unwilling to invest the money to get kilns and pottery wheels and so forth. Ditto wood-working and painting.

I think I know why I have been unwilling to pursue hobbies that require investments. It has been because I know who I’m dealing with. He is the sort of person who is apt to lose interest when it becomes apparent his skills do not measure up to his expectations. Unfortunately, that is true of pretty much everything I have tried. Even engaging in interests that do not require significant investments soon reveal that I will not become a “master.” So I abandon them.

What is most frustrating to me is that I know I do not have to become a “master” at any of them. I simply have to enjoy them. That’s all it takes for a hobby or interest to be fulfilling. Or, at least, that’s all it should take. But for some reason that’s not all it takes for me. If I’m not good enough at whatever I try to satisfy myself, I’m not good enough to continue with it. No matter whether I enjoy it or not. My enjoyment begins to decline when it becomes apparent I will not achieve a greater level of skill. It’s like I want to reach the level of professional in everything I attempt; if I can’t, I stop trying. That’s not always true, though. I think I could have enjoyed metal-working and working with clay; the investments were the stumbling blocks. I have never wanted to fritter away money needlessly (though I do exactly that involving all kinds of other things).

I’m psychoanalyzing myself here. Doing a reasonably good job of it, too, if I say so myself. But I’m only recognizing the symptoms and identifying the disease; I cannot seem to find the cure. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe it’s a chronic condition that must simply be managed, not cured. My way of managing it is to move on to the next interest, knowing it will be of limited duration.

Ed had it together. He achieved a long lifetime of accomplishments and he enjoyed a variety of interests outside his profession. I aspire to be more like him. Perhaps I will try stained glass next. I’ve had more than a superficial interest in working with stained glass for a very long time; just never explored it. Maybe now is the time. If only I can avoid thinking I need to achieve competence equal to the creator of the glass in the Chapel of Thanksgiving in Dallas or the glass in the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México in Mexico City. I try to convince myself that I must remember it’s the process, not the product. But I always forget. Ed must have known how to harness the attitude that what’s important is the process, not the product that emerges from it. I want to be like Ed.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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3 Responses to Learning About Myself by Reading a Neighbor’s Obituary

  1. Meg and Pat, thanks very much for your comments. I am sorry it took a while to acknowledge them; I’ve been distracted of late.

  2. Meg Koziar says:

    John, You write as though writing is not a “hobby” at which you have become – to say proficient is inadequate. To get up almost every day and write several paragraphs on a wide variety of subjects is a great skill. (i would say “professional” but I think I know how you’d react to that.) You write at a level far better than your skill at stained glass could ever be – and you can’t cut yourself! After all, you’ve been writing for 60+ years, I’ll bet the person who did the stained glass windows at the Chapel of Thanksgiving in Dallas was not a novice. (I’ll have to look that up! ) Meg

  3. Pat Newcomb says:

    very insightful, John and thank you for telling your side of the story — I wonder if those who knew Ed well would not also enjoy seeing this characterization of his life, clearly well lived

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