Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Exploring the Urban Craft Fad: Work

1. There is a relational crisis in America.

America is in bad shape when it comes to human relationships. That is the presupposition underlying this post, and it comes from my own observation, reading, and talking with others who care deeply about understanding their distinct identity as Americans. Since this is a presupposition, I won’t take time here to articulate or to defend it, but I will summarize it with another insight from Allan Bloom.

Bloom explains that the fathers of modern thought replaced the virtuous man with the rational and productive man. In their movement away from religion and toward reason, away from duty and toward rights, they produced systems of thought that undermine traditional virtues. Virtue, of course, pertains directly to how human beings relate to one another; but reason and rationality direct a person inward. Thus, if America is best understood as a product of modernity (or an Enlightenment experiment, as some writers say), it makes sense that the groundwork for an individualistic, anti-relational society is set more firmly here than anywhere else in the world.

Over the course of the nation’s history, this individualism has fed itself and worked itself into our way of life more deeply than we can understand. The layouts of our housing developments, the way we introduce ourselves in conversation, the structure of our institutions, the language we use in politics and public discourse, the communication and media technology we develop—these things help to form the giant lens of modern, individualistic, rights-based thought through which Americans view the experience of human existence. Just like a contact lens, it affects everything we see, but we do not see the lens itself. One area in particular that diminishes people’s capacity for healthy relationships is the American workplace.

2. Our practice and understanding of work fuels an anti-relational lifestyle.

The workplace is more than simply the place where work is done. It is also a place where people receive instruction through their routines about the nature of life. What they learn depends on what kind of work they do. In a society based on information, industry, and consumer markets, the work environment is centered on principles that are contrary to both the natural order and the desire for relationship ingrained in human nature. For example, the unwritten code that governs the activity and rhythms most people experience at their job includes the following:

1). Waiting for a desired result is bad because it means we do not have control.
2). Success requires a network of people passing information quickly through communication technologies.
3). Results must be measured and recorded in order to validate the activity of the worker.
4). The primary judge of the worth of labor is the dollar.
5). Work and leisure are opposites and exist in separate spheres.

If a person used these concepts as a guide for how to relate to other human beings, he would quickly find himself in depressing and self-induced isolation. A healthy relationship, and by this I mean a relationship defined and guided by love, requires a grounding in principles opposite to those listed above. In parenthood, for example, a person must learn that they will never have complete control over their child’s development. They must wait for certain qualities or skills to form in their child, and the waiting is good because it teaches parents to love without condition. In marriage, a couple must learn that success requires a simple, direct, and intimate connection between human beings, and that their labor is worthwhile even though they may never be rewarded for it or see its result. Friendship also provides an avenue for a person to learn these lessons, all of which are doomed if relationships are understood as things that exist in the realm of leisure as opposed to the realm of work.

3. The kind of work characterized by the craft movement offers lessons that coincide with, rather than work against, the qualities needed for healthy human relationships.

The three projects I am currently engaged in are brewing beer, growing vegetables, and refinishing a rocking chair. I am an amateur in all areas, and two of the three endeavors have a high chance of failing miserably right now. Nonetheless, I am learning things, most importantly the relevance of the tasks themselves. What is the value of doing things by hand that do not have to be done that way? For many, the point is basically to feel cool and to impress other urban people with their old-fashioned knowledge. But there is a deeper and more genuine meaning as well. Working with natural things in a manner that requires knowledge about how those things work has better capacity to teach a person about the nature of life than doing work that is centered on information. This assertion, of course, hinges on the belief that there is an essential unity between the physical and spiritual spheres and that you can learn about the latter by observing the former. Many teachings in the Christian scriptures (and others as well, but I draw from this because it is my own background) re-enforce this unity as they draw examples from agriculture and nature to illustrate spiritual truth.

Here are some examples from my own crafty experiences about how this unity manifests itself. Brewing beer teaches that impatience results in loss. Tending a garden teaches that growth and success require elements beyond human control. Refinishing a chair teaches that labor and leisure can be one in the same. All three activities remind me that beauty cannot come about without sacrifice. These principles coincide with and nurture qualities required for healthy human relationships instead of contradicting and attacking those qualities. Unlike the principles that govern much of the work done in isolation from the natural realm, they could be carried over into the sphere of marriage, parenthood, and friendship without jeopardizing those relationships.

To close, I am not merely offering these ideas to say that everyone should brew beer, grow vegetables, and refinish rocking chairs. Nor am I asserting that every person who works with natural things is a healthier and more relational human being than her office-bound counterpart. I do hope to show that the patterns of thought and actions we engage in, particularly in our work environment because we spend so much time at work, contribute greatly to our formation as people. My generation’s interest in natural work suggests that we are drawn not only to the work itself, but to the lessons the work has to teach us. We have not learned these lessons in our families or our information-centered work places, but we believe the lessons are there and that they have something important to tell us about human existence.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Exploring the Urban Craft Fad: Family

A friend and mentor of mine who is in his mid-fifties often talks with me of the differences between his generation and mine, and we come inevitably to the peril of the modern (and post-modern) family. In his grade-school years it was a strange thing to have a classmate with divorced parents. There was stigma and shame attached to it. In my grade school days it was common; today, in many urban areas especially, single-parent homes of one kind or another are the default. Though a significant number of my close friends throughout high school and college had divorced parents, I have not thought much until recently about the weight that such a situation places on children and how they carry it into adulthood.

Divorce is a difficult subject to talk about because there is still shame attached to it even though it is commonplace. People who grew up in “broken homes” do not want to be stigmatized. They do not want to hear statistics about how likely they are to repeat their parents’ failures. They do not want to be psycho-analyzed. Understandably, they want to be seen as their own people with their own potential. As for the parents, they often face co-workers, fellow church-goers, neighbors, and extended family members who distance themselves out of disappointment, bewilderment or judgment. This is unfortunate because they need the opposite. If a father lacks the strength to stay committed to his family, he needs someone to come walk with him, take the time to find out why he lacks that strength, and encourage him toward good fatherhood from whatever point he is at with steadfast patience. Simply put, there are deep reasons behind each decision to divorce, and a long-stretching (but not defining) tenderness is imprinted on each child of divorce. Both of these call for intentional grace and love rather than detached analysis.

At the same time, the destruction of the family is a crisis, and people need to speak frankly about a crisis if they hope to address or define it in any meaningful manner. To this end, I enroll the insights of Alan Bloom. In his book The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom sets the stage for the current state of the family by explaining the anti-familial concepts at the heart of modern rights-based democracy. If legitimate relationships between human beings are formed on the basis of individuals choosing to enter into a social contract, he says, then even the bond between husband, wife, parent, and child will eventually disintegrate. Following this assertion, he has a few brief pages on divorce, largely drawn from observations of his students while he taught at top American and European universities for thirty years. His assertions are direct and harsh, but they reach into the heart of the problem to strum a somber chord that resonates with much greater force and truth than it did when he wrote the book in 1987. Bloom writes:

“Children may be told over and over again that their parents have a right to their own lives, that they will enjoy quality time instead of quantity time, that they are really loved by their parents even after divorce, but children do not believe any of this. They think they have a right to total attention and believe their parents must live for them. There is no explaining otherwise to them, and anything less inevitably produces indignation and an inextirpable sense of injustice. To children the voluntary separation of parents seems worse than their death precisely because it is voluntary. The capriciousness of wills, their lack of directedness to the common good, the fact that they could be otherwise but are not—these are the real source of the war against all. Children learn a fear of enslavement to the wills of others, along with a need to dominate those wills, in the context of the family, the one place where they are supposed to learn the opposite. Of course, many families are unhappy, but that is irrelevant. The important lesson that the family taught was the existence of the only unbreakable bond, for better or for worse, between human beings. The decomposition of this bond is surely America’s most urgent social problem.”

The “context of family,” Bloom speaks of is both a set of relationships and a place. Together these things form the home, and the concept of home provides the connection to the craft movement that I now suggest. Traditionally, the home is a place where one feels a sense of belonging because of the relational bonds that exist, have existed, and will exist in that place. Most importantly for our purposes, the home is also the place where the people who are unconditionally bound to each other do things together. Work, play, conversation, marital sex, preparation and consuming of meals, study, and discipline are some of the traditional activities of the home. As Bloom points out, even if a family is unhappy, its togetherness instills a child with a sense of permanence. The fact that a family remains together and does these kinds of things together throughout a child’s lifetime provides outward form to the fact that the familial bond is by nature unbreakable and undeniable. This implanted truth, in turn, gives that child hope that other human relationships have the capacity for loyalty and self-sacrifice.

What are the effects when people no longer have confidence in this truth because it has not been modeled for them? Logically, one result would be the attempt to create on their own what they have longed for but never experienced. I suspect that part of the draw to homesteading and homemaking activities is the hope that we really will be able to form a home around ourselves out of the lifelong landscape of disappointing and conditional relationships. The homebrew kit, the urban garden, the respect for place demonstrated when we purchase local produce—these are some of the tools we take up to construct an environment that embodies the sense of rightness we seek (which is the flipside of the “inextirpable sense of injustice” that Bloom describes). We have an appetite for these activities because they foster togetherness, they are marked by wholesome and nurturing productivity, and they require hard work and sacrifice performed for the benefit of others. These are the very elements missing in most separated or unhealthy families.

Of course I am not suggesting that every person who engages in a crafty hobby does so to fill a void in his or her soul. Some of us have experienced such activities in our homes or someplace else along the way. We learned also the spirit of love and simplicity which makes them truly meaningful. Seeing it and knowing that it was good, we picked up some habits with the genuine hope to share that goodness. And some of us just want to learn to brew our own beer because it looks fun and our friends are doing it!

Nonetheless, in an attempt to connect some of the dots on the panorama of the American experience in the 21st century, I have started to build a case that the deterioration of the family and the urban craft movement are linked at some deep level. The next post will explore the craft movement as it relates to other anti-relational forces in the postmodern United States.