Thursday, April 04, 2019

The Beauty of Knowing How to do Stuff

I've been using my time lately reading, listening to podcasts and watching videos. My general goal is to learn new things so a lot of my reading is non-fiction. Not to imply we can't learn a lot from fiction or that it isn't enjoyable. It's more about constraints of time, eyesight and ability to stay awake than anything else.

I've loved reading, libraries and bookstores since I was a little boy. I still remember the smell and the cool marble floors in the Stillwater County Courthouse where the public library was. The elderly librarians were always so nice to me. Part of the joy of summer was being able to go to the library and read books. My grandmother was a reading teacher and lived with us so she had a big influence on my reading as well. Spending time in Portland nowadays is a pleasure partly because I can go to Powell's Books. As I get older I sometimes wonder if my desire to keep putting ideas in my head is to make up for the things I forget. I also can't help but think how ignorant I am...but I try.


I was watching this video from a graduate class in the KSU Political Science department discussing Wendell Berry, and his book "The Unsettling of America - Culture & Agriculture" which led me to think about how becoming an adult is mostly learning how to do stuff - walk, read, write, play nice with others, use indoor voices, ride a bike, share things, drive a car - you know adult stuff.

Wendell Berry is a native of Henry County Kentucky where he grew up on a tobacco farm owned by his father. He is a critic of large scale corporate and industrial capitalism in general, with a particular focus on the impact to small farms, communities and families.

He's viewed simplistically as a left wing environmentalist. His thinking is much deeper than that and incorporates many schools of thought - idealism, liberalism (left wing), Liberalism (classical), Burkean conservatism, socialism/Marxism, libertarianism, communitarianism, Christianity, and strong human-centered environmentalism.

One part of the lecture that intrigued me was the discussion, that starts around minute 14 of the video, about Berry's statement that "the disease of the modern character is specialization."

This idea is somewhat similar to Karl Marx's description of alienation, absence of creativity, and loss of human dignity experienced by workers in an industrialized capitalist economy. Marx provides a lot of ideas worth considering, but this particular statement from a Kentucky farmer struck a chord with me.

Think about a small farmer. They are anything but specialists. Depending on the farm they may be raising chickens, gathering eggs, feeding cows,  shearing sheep, planting crops, harvesting crops, reading about farming techniques, doing the bookkeeping, fixing the tractor/combine/bailer or other machines, mending fences, milking cows etc. etc. etc.


As an aside - one of my favorite books about someone learning about farming is E.B. White's book "One Man's Meat" written in 1942 about his experiences after leaving his job at the New Yorker in 1938 to try his hand at farming in Maine. The historical setting and worldwide trauma occurring just prior to World War II is embedded (lightly) in the book but it's mostly good stories about adventures on a small farm. E.B. White also wrote Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little as well as being co-editor of the Elements of Style.


Returning to the idea that specialization is the disease of modern character. Worker alienation is a Marxian idea but Berry also proposes that specialization leads to abdication of responsibility. Instead of thinking about how we can solve a problem we seek a specialist to solve it for us.

One way to look at this is if we are unhappy, overweight, out of shape, lonely, sleep deprived - to name just a few things, there are any number of specialists wanting to sell us their services, books, pills, or trinkets that might solve our problem(s) or at least make us quit dwelling on them for awhile (if it's a really nice trinket or good pill). 

Another way to look at this is that, rather than being a specialist and depending on other specialists, we become adults by learning how to do many different things.

I sometimes wonder what it's like for someone who lives a sheltered life. Someone who has never driven a car let alone maintained or repaired it, mowed a lawn, planted a garden or a tree, grew flowers, fixed a leaky faucet, cooked a meal, washed a dish. In some ways it would be like living as a young child. One can only imagine how helpless and fearful a person would be  knowing that without the ability to pay someone to do things for them...they would be lost. I can't help but think of the current resident of the White House as I ponder this, and how fear drives bullying and phony manly man behavior...but I'm done letting that guy live in my head.

You could consider this helplessness in more general terms. Why is accumulating and holding onto wealth paramount for some people? It's not so much the money; it's the fear of being helpless that causes the extreme emotional reactions. Threats to accumulation of wealth threaten their ability to pay the people who take care of them and their possessions. If you didn't know how to cook a meal, wash your clothes, take care of a baby, make a bed, drive a car, shop for groceries etc. and someone told you it was suddenly your responsibility of course you'd be afraid. 

Gardening, riding a bike, changing your oil, driving etc. Doing things yourself creates a sense of independence, individual efficacy and impacts how you view your role in relationships with other people and institutions.

Someone once told me you can always learn how to do something and I believe that's true (absent some super complex tasks). It's so rewarding and simple to know you've done some thing yourself.

A central question in philosophy is what constitutes the "good life". It might be as simple as this...

Learn, and learn to love, all those adult things - washing dishes, fixing  bikes and leaky faucets, assembling furniture, setting up electronic devices, vacuuming rugs, mopping floors, mowing lawns, pulling weeds, going for walks, riding bikes, reading to a child, changing a diaper, cooking a meal or doing your taxes. As an adult there's no end to what you can do - make some beer, make some bread, plant a tree, grow some grass, paint something, sew something, teach a child something, travel far, stay home, experience conflict and resolve it...the list is endless my friend, and so are the joys.