Mortality, Autonomy, and Craft

I have been reading two books lately about two very different topics that engage the same basic question: How can we act as genuine individuals in a society that treats us all as interchangeable consumers of goods and services? One, that spoke directly to themes in Sawdust and Soul, was The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, by Matthew Crawford. His earlier book, Shop Class as Soul Craft had caught my imagination and I wanted to follow up on that theme. The other was Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and medical writer in Boston, whose earlier pieces in The New Yorker evinced great wisdom and insight. Besides, my wife and reading companion Sylvia had recommended it to me.

Crawford is a philosopher and a motorcycle mechanic in Virginia. I’m not sure which of those things he does at night and which is his day job. They are probably churned together. Most of his academic conversation partners swim in the currents of German philosophy—Kant, Hegel, Heidegger and the like. But his boat seems to be constructed more out of the traditions of American pragmatism with an admixture of Michael Polyani’s insights. But don’t worry about that. What he is trying to say is that our own fetish of individualism has been based in a wrong-headed notion that we had to detach from the world around us and from traditions of work and action in order to become truly free individuals who act according to our own will and reason. However, what we need is not this detachment but engagement in the practices of the great craft traditions that demand the movement of our body as well as our mind. We are embodied selves who learn and think most fully and uniquely when we are engaged in practical activity that relates us to a whole community enduring over generations, whether that be carpentry, sailing, organ-building, or, yes, cooking.

All of this is built up with an argument that takes us into the insidious manipulations of the gambling (not “gaming”) industry as well as the fascinating and resurgent craft of building organs. It is a rich itinerary, indeed. I was struck, of course, with the parallels with what John and I were trying to get at in Sawdust and Soul. “Mindful meditation,” as I put it, is a way of engaging mind and hands with wood in order to find a kind of transcendence in the real-world particular. Just as John and I found a re-anchoring of our lives in this practical activity with natural materials, so Crawford is finding a more generous lever to get at the destructive forces of consumer culture as well as the liberating possibilities opened up by commitment to the craft traditions.

What has this to do with the reflections of a surgeon? A lot, it turns out. Gawande opens his exploration with a chapter on “The Independent Self,” in which he shows how most contemporary medicine approaches us as customers and the physician as a vendor who describes the various options and then asks us to choose among them out of our relative ignorance. This vendor-customer model was meant to replace the paternalism of “the doctor knows best” that pervaded medicine in an earlier age and still does in many rural areas. However, this notion of the individual as consumer, with its assumption that prolonging the life of the individual’s body is the main goal of medicine, is also a mistaken understanding of who we are as persons. For Gawande, we want to be authors of a coherent life story that makes sense within a community of memory and hope. Crawford is saying much the same thing in a different context. What we need is a guiding, informed conversation with physicians and medical care-givers about the meaning and purpose of our life. What goals and values do we want to pursue as our options for physical mobility and mental acuity diminish with age or impairment? Within this framework, then, doctor and patient can work together to maximize those goals and values.

This model of conversation and personally-tailored care also is emerging in the institutional models for living out our later years—a matter of increasing interest to people like me, for sure. Do we want to be “institutionalized” and fit into the routines and requirements of a “nursing home,” “retirement village,” or other large-scale “continuous care” facility? Or are there other options that enable each of us to maximize the specific goals and values we have for our lives? Gawande weaves his argument for new approaches through a number of case studies rather than forays into academic philosophy, although he picks up on Josiah Royce, one of my favorites in my college and graduate school years. Through his stories, we can try on some different scenarios to get a feel for their pain or their possibility.

In both books, then, the authors are calling for a new, embodied, way to author our identity, to live out our story in the most imaginative way we know. To do this, we will have to live against the grain of our society and find ways to remold it to enable each of us to live in conversation with our bodies, our natural world, and the communities that have shaped us and that we hope will receive our memory. It’s worth talking about. You can start with these partners, for sure.

Posted in Ethics, Public Life, Woodworking, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Restoring our Memories, Restoring Ourselves

The work of remembering takes patience, persistence, and an attention to detail. So I am finding out as I painstakingly sort through almost four hundred photographs from my mother’s stay on Cyprus in 1923-25. As I brighten, crop, repair, and clean these old photographs sometimes I see a figure in the background that I hadn’t seen before. I see a smile on my mother’s face that I later saw when her hair was gray. I see a profile in my grandfather, the Superintendent at the

Grandmother Ruby Jackson with the family of the Mukhtar (Mayor) of Tera, 1924

Grandmother Ruby Jackson with the family of the Mukhtar (Mayor) of Tera, 1924

Skouriotissa mine, that lets me know that he has always been in me, even when I didn’t recognize it. And then there are the innumerable faces of people I never knew—of smiling women hauling mud for bricks, and grimy men in mine tunnels probing veins of copper amidst the rubble of explosions. I see an old priest standing before the little Church of “Panagaia Skouriotissa,” whose work in worship and in caring for these miners’ families I will never fathom. “Who were they?” I ask. Is there someone on the island or abroad who can remember who they are? Have I unknowingly been talking to their descendants as I visited to get a feel for the land, the people, the culture they passed on or that died out with their demise?

But here is a ruined castle I remember, now cleaned up for tourists. And a medieval church that has become a mosque, a harbor that I recognize, now crammed with different

My mother and uncle with Governess Nina Bayada, a neighborhood friend, and "Daisy" at the Skouriotissa stables

My mother and uncle with Governess Nina Bayada, a neighborhood friend, and “Daisy” at the Skouriotissa stables

boats, but still protected by an old stone quay. These mute landmarks only want me to hear the comments from my mother’s family as they sat by the sea on that rock, the squeals of delight among her girlfriends whose summer sun suits tell me of a birthday party or an afternoon spent swimming at the shore. And here’s the sheep they called Daisy, indulging their patting hands among their myriad of animals wandering around their compound at the mine. I see but I do not hear, or smell, or touch. And even then, I only see a black and white snapshot, a mute slice in time, a sliver of the spectrum of their colorful life.

It is like the mining work itself, digging into the earth that holds us up, nourishes us with food, delights us with its sparkling beauty, awes us with its tremendous power. In mining for these memories I restore lost pieces of my self, my temperament, my scientific wonder, my perseverance in a project. And I hope

Women digging mud for bricks near Skouriotissa Mine

Women digging mud for bricks near Skouriotissa Mine

that I am helping to restore the memory of a people, now torn apart by haunting memories going back to Homer’s time, to successive empires — Roman, Crusader, French, Venetian, Ottoman, British—that have molded layers of their memory, like the metamorphic rock that makes Cyprus a Mecca for geologists. Yet the rock itself still is that self-same substance with its own intrinsic properties, the properties that make it Cypriot.

Even as I have worked on these pictures and documents, people have come to me thorough the internet, the mails, and in meetings on Cyprus to help me understand the meaning of these pictures, these places, these people. Just as my wife and I increasingly rely on each other to hold together our personal memories, so this larger network is helping to reconstruct this wider memory of which I am a part.

The work of memory is a work of restoration. So I am trying to exercise in some small way a work of restorative justice, of restoring rightly what was before, even though it itself rested on layers and layers of previous destruction and restoration. Just last night we saw “Woman in Gold,” in which Helen Mirren powerfully portrays the search by Maria Altmann to recover the long-lost art treasures stolen from her family by the Nazis in Vienna. Though the painting of her aunt by Gustav Klimt was valued at well over 100 million dollars, it was finally the healing of her memory which became the prize of her decade-long struggle. Michael Lapsley, the South African priest who lost his hand and an eye in the struggle against Apartheid, has spent the rest of his life in what he calls “The Healing of Memory,” for without a healing of memory there can be no restoration of social relations, of law, of our relation to the earth. His work has made a powerful impact on thousands of people traumatized into amnesia by the horrors of violence and war.

As I dig into this mountain of memory for a people and for my own family, I am also working with my sister as she finds proper care for her husband, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, in which the memory of a person is whittled down to its infant core and slowly flickers out in a return to the spark that began his or her life. It is a cruel disease, whose ravages for the afflicted person are incomprehensible, but whose destruction of the bonds with friends and loved ones robs us of what makes human community possible—a common memory.

To remember, to remember rightly, to remember in common—this is what it is to be human and to be capable of love as well as forgiveness. In the restoration of memory, even its most humble remnants, we engage in the work of what Jews call “Tikkun Olam”— the healing of the world.

Posted in Ecology, Ethics, On Writing, Personal Events, Restorative Justice | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment


I can’t get it out of my mind and I don’t want to. On June 19, Dylan Roof, the confessed killer of nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was arraigned in court and listened to passionate  words of forgiveness from Nadine Collier, Anthony Thompson, and Felicia Sanders, relatives of three of those he had killed. Their words of forgiveness, spoken with breaking hearts and soaring spirits, have planted seeds deep into the soil of America—seeds that are already bearing fruit in steps to remove racist symbols of our past from our public life.

And so the power of forgiveness is once again in our public conversations. This was not the forgiveness that is conditioned by the apology and remorse of the perpetrator of a wrong. It was a cleansing of a wound, an offering of a new beginning, both for those deeply traumatized by such a heinous assault but also for the accused killer and for the communities that had fostered, guided, and provisioned him for this crime. It was an act of love so that the hatred of the killer would not find lodging in their own hearts.

For most of us forgiveness is part of a transaction: You give me apology and I will give you forgiveness. Balance cleared. Debt erased. But this forgiveness, as so many have commented, comes from embrace of a prior act of God, the source of all new beginnings. Christians, in seizing on the conviction that God has started things anew in spite of human destructiveness, are simply trying to channel this power to others. The members of Emanuel Church (Emanu-el, “God with us”) have schooled themselves for years to the habits of forgiveness. They were ready to forgive in spite of their sense of grievous loss. These were not words within a calculation of apology and forgiveness, they were words that re-start relationships on a new level built on a different orientation of gratitude rather than resentment, love rather than fear.

At the same time that murder and forgiveness were overturning business as usual in American culture and politics, Greece, and with it the entire European Union, was entering its own cataclysm. I couldn’t help connecting these seemingly separate events, because they both were struggles over the forgiveness of debts. The forgiveness of Emanuel was entirely re-setting the debt and repayment world of retribution, violent reprisal, and apology-driven forgiveness. Greece was struggling with its own indebtedness and the inability of the world financial system to release itself from the destructive balance sheets of financial retribution.

Debts. That is what Jesus’s famous prayer ask forgiveness for. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” (How ironic that we have these words in Greek!) Many of us mask this over by saying “Forgive us our trespasses,” but the Greek word “debts” (opheilimata) is embedded in the very concept of the Hebrew Jubilee, in which debts are released every fifty years, signaling a new beginning for the whole society.

Whether in the underlying economic subordination of American racism or in the trauma of Greek citizens today, the “debts” and the whole system of indebtedness that this radical forgiveness supplants are at the root of our problems of social justice.

So, if you’re a Christian, the next time you say The Lord’s Prayer, say “debts” and remember what the saints of Emanuel church have testified to. And fold in a prayer for the loosing of the unpayable debts that burden generations of people. It’s not everything that needs to be done, but perhaps it will open us all up to the new beginnings we need. Let me know what you think.

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Journeying Toward Reconciliation

Last October I wrote about the development of Reconciling Conversations at First United Methodist Church in Waynesville, here in western North Carolina. At the time, we had put together a little book of stories from members of our congregation about their life, struggles, and faith as Gay and Lesbian members of our church, as parents, friends and families of Gay and Lesbian people, and asJourneying toward Reconciliation wrap cover “ordinary members” who had experienced a long journey toward greater acceptance and understanding of people of differing gender identities and sexual orientations. At the same time, we put together a series of nine presentations on psychology, Scripture, theology, and ethics to enable people to explore some crucial dimensions of these complex matters.

The experience exceeded our greatest expectations, with over fifty people attending for not just nine but eleven weeks of meetings throughout the fall. At the same time, people picked up the book for themselves, their families, and friends. Groups in Georgia and South Carolina began using it in churches and high schools to inspire them to write their own stories. We had a second in-house printing, which started going fast. Marshall Jones, one of our conversation group, with experience in editing and publishing, began to put together an edition through CreateSpace, the Amazon self-publishing arm. With a heightened attractiveness, covers, and minor editing—but the same stories—it is now available on-line for only $3.60.

Here is what the back cover says about the book:

Our congregation lived in silence to the pain and suffering of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered people in the midst of our families, friendships, and community. Inspired by simple gatherings of prayer and conversation, we began to talk to one another in circles of trusting and confidential conversation. Out of that experience we decided to put together this book of stories from members of our own congregation.

The response to these stories has been so overwhelming that we have now issued these stories as a book for the general public, available through and other book retailers.

We hope this little book can serve as a starting point for telling your own stories as your communities and congregations struggle toward a life of more acceptance, openness, forgiveness, and vitality.

Indeed, you’re invited to start your own conversations, story-telling, and explorations in your own context. The book contains a number of references to resources about circle conversations, roundtable worship, and LGBT ministries. The stories themselves are available online at our blogsite. We have set up a Facebook page where we hope to put links soon to our presentations from last fall, which are now on Give us a “Like” and let us know what you’re doing.

Here’s how to get the book:

Go to or to

Pass it on. Widen the circle. As our church motto says, “Welcome ALL. Grow in Faith. Engage the World.”

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