I freely confess that I am a hobbyist. I love to dabble, and my life sometimes reminds me of one of those Flemish still life paintings, full of a confusing array of seemingly insignificant objects. My new year resolutions last January were quite modest. They were: learn to read New Testament Greek fluently, finish the first draft of a fantasy novel, sew three winter dresses, learn to paint with pastel, buckle down and learn piano theory, create an Amazon bookstore, — that is not all, but need I continue?
I like to think of myself as the tortoise, slow but sure. I may not look like I am making any progress but . . . well . . . actually, to be entirely honest, I am not making progress in the conventional sense of the word. I doubt I will ever pass the hare, no matter how long he sleeps. I don’t really expect to become a successful author or artist, nor do I have of visions of making a fortune selling books on Amazon. But I am fine with that, my ambition, my finish line, is in a very different direction from the hare’s.
Today I spent two hours with one of my favorite people; my piano teacher, who also makes pottery, plays the violin, draws,–you get the idea, another hobbyist. She was telling me that she had decided to revisit and improve a lovely piano piece, which she had learned in college, after listening to a recording of it played by a concert pianist. She played bits of it and told me how it ought to sound, and what she was doing wrong, then she smiled and said: “I know I’ll never be able to play it like he (the concert pianist) does.” A half rueful, half humorous look passed between us. The dismissal of one dream for another.
We live in a culture that encourages specialization. When we graduate from high school and enter college we are expected to choose a field; the field we wish to spend four years (usually) studying, and the rest of our lives until retirement, practicing. Later we are asked by every new acquaintance: “so what do you do?” and naturally they don’t expect us to reply : “well, when I get up in the morning, the first thing I do . . . ” they expect an answer like: “I’m an accountant.” Specialization is a good thing, please don’t think I dislike it, but because of our culture’s emphasis, the hobbyist can sometimes feel sadly alone, out of place, unnecessary.
I like to think of specialization as a Rembrandt painting in which the light is carefully cast to highlight to important part of the painting, the focal point, while less important details are hidden by shadow.
It is beautiful, very; but I think the Flemish still life, the conglomeration, can be beautiful too.
It could be said of the hobbyist that he is not very good at anything, except that the hobbyist is very good at being somewhat good at lots of things. What he lacks in mastery he makes up for in diversity, for to the hobbyist belongs the remarkable talent of experiential comparison. His knowledge and practice of various subjects relate and contrast with one another like the shapes and textures in the Flemish painting.
But is this really a worthwhile occupation? If our goal is success in the world’s eyes, then, perhaps not. It is unlikely, at best, that a hobbyist ever will become president of the United States or president of Yale. But it is God who is the artist, and true success is to glorify Him with the talents He has given us. By that standard, it is conceivable that a life of conglomeration is a worthy goal, for it brings a new perspective on the beauty of God’s truth.