One of my favourite sayings of G. K. Chesterton is his quip that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly. When I first heard this paradoxical witticism I was somewhat scandalized by it. I had always been taught, as I suspect had most people, that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing well. How could Chesterton be so fundamentally wrong on such a simple and surely uncontroversial point? Why would anyone wish to do something badly and why on earth should Chesterton, usually the wisest of men, encourage them in their slothful carelessness? Since, however, I trusted GKC more than I trusted myself, I thought it best to question my own assumptions before questioning Chesterton. It was, after all, Chesterton who had said that we need to stand on our heads if we want to see anything clearly for the first time. Perhaps, in order to understand Chesterton’s meaning, I needed to stand on my head or, in any event, I needed to stand my preconceptions on their head.
Returning to the scandalous epigram, I wondered what Chesterton could have meant by suggesting that a thing worth doing is worth doing badly. Perhaps he meant that it was better to do something badly than not to do it at all. This made sense. It was better to be a bad Christian than to not be a Christian at all. It was better to walk in Christ’s footsteps, however falteringly and however often we fell, than to give up following him at all. Yes, this made sense. Perhaps this was what Chesterton meant—or at least part of what he meant.
What Chesterton did not mean, and what he had not said, was that doing a thing badly is better than doing a thing well. What he was saying, and what I had not grasped when he had scandalized me, was that it is impossible to do a thing well unless you a willing to do it badly first. The paradox is that a thing is worth doing badly precisely because it is worth doing well. This was his deeper meaning. And this is what makes his witty epigram one of the wisest and most brilliant things he ever said.
Take football, for example, by which I mean the beautiful game of soccer and not the American game that calls itself “football.” Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest soccer player in the world, was once a really poor player. Indeed, he could hardly score a goal to save his life. No doubt, as a two-year-old, he had made his parents laugh when he had fallen head over heels trying to kick a ball that was almost as big as he was. And yet he continued to practice what Chesterton preached. Feeling that football was something worth doing, he continued to do it badly. In consequence, he began to do it better and eventually began to do it better than anyone else. Had he failed to follow Chesterton’s philosophy of failure, he would have failed to succeed!
Seen in this light, there is nothing controversial whatsoever in Chesterton’s maxim and I feel somewhat silly for ever having been scandalized by it. There is, however, a misinterpretation of Chesterton’s meaning that is not only scandalous but the cause of scandal throughout the world. It is the belief that a thing is worth doing badly because it is impossible to do well. Although this gross and grotesque error is never seriously applied to relatively unimportant things, like playing football or playing the piano, where the pursuit of excellence is taken for granted, it is all too often applied to the moral life, especially what is now somewhat crassly and callously referred to as our “sex lives”. Since it is assumed that chastity is impossible, it is widely assumed that chastity itself should be abandoned. Since we can’t hope to be clean, we should learn to be happy with our own filthiness. Where the pursuit of virtue is concerned, the pursuit of excellence is abandoned or even ridiculed and vilified.
Since “nobody is perfect,” nobody should be criticized for their imperfections, and since, in moral terms, our imperfections are called sins, nobody should be criticized for their sins. We should all be happy and comfortable doing the moral life badly because only those without sin, which is nobody, should cast the first stone. It is thus that the words of Christ are perverted and distorted, reminding us of Shakespeare’s warning in The Merchant of Venice that “the Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” The problem is that it is simply not true to say that nobody is perfect. Somebody is Perfect and that Somebody tells us, immediately after telling us not to throw stones, that we should go and sin no more. Ponder those words: we should go and sin no more. That same Perfect Somebody tells us to strive to be sinless, as he also tells us that we should be perfect as our father in Heaven is perfect.
This is all very well but is it not a counsel of perfection which is simply impossible for mere mortals?
Perhaps it is, but that does not mean that we should not devote our lives to being perfect as Christ or His Father are perfect. Lionel Messi, as good as he is, is not a perfect soccer player. If he were a yard or two faster and his skills a little more finely tuned, he would be even better than he is. He is not perfect as a soccer player but he is as good as he is because he is always striving for perfection. What’s true of soccer is true of more important things, such as chastity.
Since we are made in the image of God and since God became Man, we are more fully human the more we are like Christ. To aspire to be like the Perfect Man is to aspire to be more perfectly human, or, to put it another way, the closer we are to perfection, the more fully human we become. No other goal is worthy of those made in God’s own image. Yet another way of saying the same thing is to say that sin dehumanizes us. It makes us less human, less whom we are meant to be.
Once we pursue what appears to be the impossible goal of perfection, armed with the ineffable grace of God, we will find that we are being perfected, even in the midst of our imperfections. If we pursue this goal faithfully even unto death, doing things badly so that we may do them better, we will be finally perfected in the heaven-haven of our reward. The saints in heaven are perfect. They are whom they are meant to be.
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