If there’s one thing I hate doing on a Friday evening, it’s working on a plumbing project. It’s even worse if it’s in a tight space. And it’s especially miserable if a toilet is involved. A few weeks ago I had the holy trinity of plumbing misery, the hat trick of plumbing madness: a toilet project in a tight space on a Friday night.
This wasn’t a major repair. I just had to add a sprayer hose to our toilet for cloth diapering. Some may argue that the worst was yet to come (I’d be inclined to agree). Regardless, it was a really, really easy project.
I watched a video on YouTube just to make sure I had it right, worked my hand under the tank, gave the plastic washer a twist, and promptly sent water flooding the bathroom floor.
How did I manage to screw up a really simple project? I fiddled with it and mopped up my mess as I continued to struggle. This couldn’t be THAT hard?
As if a button had just been pushed, I started to fume, thinking angry thoughts and getting frustrated with myself. It evolved and compounded and expanded until I was completely undone, hardly able to think logically.
This was supposed to take a few minutes, but instead I took a mental health break.
As I tried to calm down over this silly little project, I also caught myself asking stark existential questions: “What is wrong with me?” “Why am I so incompetent at everything?” “Is there anything I can do well?”
I hesitate to use the word because it’s a bit overused these days, but I finally accepted that this minor little plumbing project had “triggered” something for me. My response was above and beyond all reason. I’d clearly turned the wrong thing and just needed to regroup with another YouTube video before trying again.
However, the negativity continued to rage in my mind. I was paralyzed by my rage and apparent incompetence.
Thankfully my wife was downstairs grading papers during all of this, so I started recounting my failures to her.
The more I expressed my exact feelings to her, the more I realized that something like this has happened before…
I was trying to change the kitchen sink faucet at our new home, and I couldn’t fit the wrench up near the top of the faucet where it connected to the water supply. I honestly didn’t know if we’d ever have a functioning kitchen sink.
Why am I so incompetent with tools?
I was working at a church office and needed to hammer a nail into the wall. I grabbed the hammer awkwardly and tapped at it. As I pulled the hammer back to swing again, another staff member pulled the hammer out of my hand.
“You’re making me nervous with how you’re holding that hammer!” he said before taking over on the nail.
What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I hammer a nail in?
I was changing the oil on my Toyota Corolla in a friend’s driveway while in college. The nut for the oil pan had been fastened quite tight by the oil change shop I’d taken it to a few months before. I yanked and pulled on that nut, but I couldn’t make it budge as I’d done before.
I learned several years later that I had a larger ratchet that I should have used in order to gain more leverage.
Why am I so weak and stupid?
I was 12 years old and my dad was making me mow the lawn. Only this was back before our relationship improved dramatically, and he kept yelling at me because I didn’t mow straight lines. The more he yelled, the more I cried, the more I veered off track, and the more he yelled.
Can’t I handle walking in a straight line?
These were small events in the grand scheme of things if you took them all on their own. However, I’d created a narrative of failure throughout my personal history. These were an army of tiny spikes that added up to create significant pain, frustration, and self-doubt.
The light came on for me. I’ve always struggled with mechanical or handy work. You could say I was impatient. That night I realized that it wasn’t a matter of being more patient. I needed less shame. I needed to stop seeing myself as an incompetent failure, playing judge and jury for myself, eager to condemn. I’d let shame override anything that God could say about myself.
I needed a new narrative.
Kneeling down to pull the washer off the toilet, I rooted around again, this time finding the right place to unscrew the hose. There was no mess. There was no anger or foot stomping. I removed the old hose, attached the new hose with the valve and sprayer, and walked downstairs.
I settled down next to my wife having made a minor change to our toilet’s water supply while also making the first of many important changes to my view of myself.