The Spirit of Craft

Losing yourself in the process.

I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime —Henry David Thoreau

I enjoy making things. The things are often irrelevant, it’s the making that I enjoy. It reminds me of traveling. When you make something you are completely absorbed in that process to the point that you forget everything else, forget the world, save this tiny part of it that you are reshaping.

Travel is the same way, there is only right now. A complete absorption, obsession even, with the world in front of you. The plantains and steak on the plate, the potholes in the road, the birds calling in the cold morning air. Wherever you are, there is only that, the rest of the world pales, ceases to exist. It’s a state of ease, of relaxed absorption, of freedom. Realizing that you have nowhere to go, nowhere to be, nothing to do to maintain yourself in this world, save to be where you are, doing what you’re doing.

This is freedom. Doing things. Making things. Same thing.

Yet one of the current cultural ideals is getting others to do things for you. Outsourcing your life. Someone else mows the lawn. Someone else cleans the house. Someone else fixes the car. This is called success.

I ran across Hegel’s paradigm of servant and master the other day, which I don’t think I’ve thought of since I dropped out of college in 1994. I was struck though at how well Hegel defines modern culture. If you’re not familiar, in Hegel’s story the master grows increasingly impoverished through idleness while the servant grows daily in skill and wisdom because he is doing things for himself. So one starts dependent on the other, the other ends up dependent. The pivotal moment of Hegel is when the servant realizes he no longer needs the master, what he needs is to perfect his skill further.

We’re in danger of becoming the “master”, who is really master in name only. I’m not saying you have to get out and mow your lawn to achieve freedom, but I am not alone in thinking that in the pursuit of “freedom from” we’re losing our “freedom to”… to do, to make, to say, to think.

It’s not just that we’re becoming masters of nothing, it’s that we’ve lost the very resourcefulness that marks a truly free human being, one who is independent and capable of solving problems on his or her own, thinking for his or herself. Contrary to what marketers are selling, freedom is in doing, in making, growing in skill and wisdom.

The more often you can do this, the better life will be.

Why? That’s the question isn’t it?

When making, your concentration becomes sharply focused on the task at hand and everything else that makes up you fades away. The chattering I that is usually busy thinking and analyzing is set aside while someone else drives the ship. It’s an odd thing when you experience it. Something working through you. A kind of communion with the gods perhaps. The Greeks held this to be true of great craftsmen1, that Athena, or Hephaestus, or whoever governed the craft at hand was in fact working through the craftsman to create the work. In this sense the craftsman is no longer there. They become a conduit for the gods to move in the world.

Most people I know who are great craftsmen speak in these terms, saying that they do not know where their ideas come from, nor are they conscious of the particular skills they’re using at any given moment, they simply do, they simply are, or are not in this case. As a skilled woodworker I know says, the key to being good at anything is to get out of your own way.

This is how making things becomes a spiritual discipline, an act of letting the gods move the world through you. “For true masonry is not held together by cement but by gravity, that is to say, by the warp of the world, by the stuff of creation itself,” writes Cormac McCarthy in The Stonemason. “The keystone that locks the arch is pressed in place by the thumb of God.”

  1. This is a gendered word where I do not intend a gender, anyone can be a creator, a craftsman, but English has no better term that I know of, sorry. 


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