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Joy Without Talent

One of the best therapists I ever had had a way of asking questions that haunt me, in a good way. And lately I’ve been thinking about just one of those episodes, where he would posit a question that would turn my thinking around.

On that day, we were working on separating self-worth from work, which is probably a common problem these days. He asked: “What is something that you enjoy that you are not good at?”

Image via Stocksnap

I was stumped. It hadn’t even occurred to me such a thing was possible, or if it had I couldn’t remember it. All our lives, we’re trained to follow “talent,” to seek out the spaces where we’re good at things and stand out. In my high school, the after school activities were so cutthroat that you could only do a small handful, perhaps two, and most kids also had private lessons in their main on to be even better at it just to hold their position. There was no room for doing something for the sheer joy of it. You had to be good at it if you wanted to enjoy it.

Capitalism, likewise, claims to be a “meritocracy” (we can debate the truth of that claim another time), in which skill and talent are rewarded, and the people who are good at a thing are allowed to continue doing it because they are given funding to survive by doing it. Our self-worth is entirely validated by what we’re good at; we’re literally paid based on performance in some cases (or so it’s claimed). And capitalism also tells us that a person is only worth what they produce, that they don’t “deserve” basic livelihood unless they’re “good at” providing some utility “worth paying for.”

In church this weekend, part of the service included a homily on the grace of singing next to someone who enjoys singing, but can’t carry a tune. It brought my old therapist’s question back to mind vividly. Most of us, if we know we can’t carry a tune, hide our singing. We’re taught it’s shameful to even try unless we’re good at it.

I didn’t have an answer for my therapist at the time. Back then I couldn’t remember what I enjoyed doing—I was feeling like I couldn’t even remember who I was at the time, really—much less have the mental capacity to evaluate something I wasn’t good at as joy-bringing.

But the next time I saw him, I had an answer: metroidvania games.

Even with Justin Bailey’s help, I suck at this game. And I love it.
Image via Metroid Database

And to this day, I cling to that answer. It sounds strange, to think of metroidvania games—that is, platformers in which players explore a dangerous world and find objects to unlock new locations, so named for the Metroid and Castlevania franchises that perhaps best embody the genre—as an example of human worth, as a place of joy without talent, but here we are. We live in strange times, after all.

I love playing metroidvania games. I especially love the Castlevania franchise, although I admit I’ve played relatively few of the games, and I have only ever beat one of them. I also enjoy the Metroid franchise, which I have played a greater percentage of, but again have never actually beat any of them. But I love them and get excited about them.

I know I suck at it. Jumping isn’t my strong suit in games, and jumping and fighting together is even worse for me, because fighting isn’t my strong suit either. The bosses in these games are notoriously hard, “Nintendo hard” even. But I delight in the simplicity of their structure, and I revel in their music, because for some reason these games usually have amazing soundtracks. So I play them. A fair bit, actually. Because they’re fun. Because I just like being in that space. I have no expectation that I’ll ever be good at these games, or even see the end except vicariously. But that’s not a reason not to play them.

I know I suck at this game, but I just love that soundtrack so much
(even if Simon can’t figure out how to jump off the stairs)
Image via Castlevania Wiki

Nor is it any reason anyone should prevent me from playing them. For the people who are good at these games, who make let’s plays, who do speedruns, who just enjoy the games because they live and breathe them (like my brother), my hamfisted enjoyment of the games does no harm. In fact, it benefits them; I will watch their let’s plays, I will be in awe of their speedruns, I will seek their experience and wisdom on the topic. I will participate alongside them and be their support base and honor their talent and skill, precisely because I know I don’t have the same talent and skill, even if I can share in their joy.

In our current time, we’re constantly told to turn every interest into a “side hustle,” to convert interest into capital, to make everything an economic matter. But that leaves little room for our souls to breathe. We need more spaces where we can just enjoy, where we can have joy without talent, worth without economic value.

So, what’s something you enjoy but aren’t good at?

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