My dad is a Lutheran minister, and I’d never heard him use the “f-word” till he tried to fix our bathroom plumbing. He had never trained, apprenticed, or even been acquainted with a plumber that I knew of. Yet he took on the leak under our sink armed with thriftiness, a Reader’s Digest book on home repair, and a 5-gallon bucket of good intentions.
It did not end well.
I believe in knowing my limits. I believe in knowing my abilities. And I believe in knowing the distance between the two.
My dad did many things well. He wrote sermons. He built model cars and worked with wood well enough to craft toy airplanes and rubber-band pistols for me. He taught me to throw and catch.
I also do some things well. I write — mostly fiction. I cook comfort food. I can fix almost anything on a bicycle and properly set up a guitar. I’m a passable home decorator.
Two months ago, my wife, Katie, and I bought our first house. Next to parenthood, nothing so sharpens a person’s knowledge of his limitations as home ownership. Friends of ours are brilliant do-it-yourselfers. Gut and renovate a bathroom? No problem. Lay a hardwood floor? No sweat. I am not a brilliant do-it-yourselfer. I paint interior walls well enough that few people cringe when they visit our home. But that’s it.
Now a water leak means our kitchen will be torn out and replaced. Our seemingly limitless do-it-yourself friends said, “We can lay ceramic tile in a weekend! You buy copper pipe, we’ll bring the solder!” But nothing makes me happier than talking with our experienced contractor about his work.
I’m capable of learning, growing, and pushing my limits with new challenges of all kinds — and I do this daily, where it matters to me to do so. But I have no reason to presume that, on my first attempt, I could do work equal to that of a man who’s been renovating kitchens for twenty years.
By letting others do work with which I have no experience, I save myself the frustration of doing it poorly. I also get to enjoy seeing someone else do it well.
As I honor my limitations, I honor our contractor’s abilities and every hard-earned lesson that has given him his professionalism and skill. When my dad tried to fix our bathroom sink, he called a plumber in the end. Watching my dad, I learned that calling a professional first doesn’t need to be a shameful admission of my limitations. I believe that doing so means I have learned my place in the human family — a community in which each of us has unique abilities and limits, and we help each other as we’re needed. That’s a hard-earned lesson all its own. And it cuts down on the four-letter words.
Andrew Bode-Lang lives in State College. His essay aired Thursday on WPSU.