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Not for Bread Alone: Notes on Good Work

August 14th, 2020 | 7 min read

By Benjamin Woollard

On a number of the shelves in my home sit baskets that I have made myself. I took up the craft out of a need for contrast in what is a largely abstract existence, mostly consisting of reading and computer work. Being a person who enjoys working with his hands, I was not all that surprised when I found this to be deeply gratifying. The constant application of my mind and body to a challenging, but not terribly complicated, activity resulted in long periods of intense inner quiet that gave rise to a peace not unlike prayer. This kind of experience is something that seems to have a great pull for many people, as is attested by the seemingly endless stream of internet videos in which people build huts, craft wooden furniture with non-electronic tools, or weave comforters using archaic methods, some of which attract millions of views.

It is especially interesting to note that many of the people in these videos, as well as those viewing them, live in a time and place where most of these practices have become almost entirely obsolete. Few of us who have been born in the post-industrial west have any need of primitive survival skills, traditional woodworking knowledge, or an ability to sew, and yet many of us consistently look back nostalgically upon the connection that our forefathers had with the basic tasks of subsistence. We have accumulated so much comfort that we are forced to face the realization that this is perhaps not what we really wanted all along. There is something beyond the mere necessities of life, and yet which somehow also involves those necessities.

There are two primary assumptions that I most frequently encounter regarding human subsistence, both of which are false. The first is that the fundamental drive of action is material security. This is the survival narrative, which is so often used as a lens through which to view the entire natural world, humanity included. Of course, there is some truth in this, as material security is a prerequisite for the higher forms of culture—art, philosophy, and so on—which require a good deal of leisure. There is always a certain animal necessity in our existence, with all the spear throwing, or office work, that this necessitates.

Yet to prioritize this over meaningful engagement with the world is a mistake. If that which is desirable for its own sake constitutes the good, as it does, then surely mere material subsistence is not the good, but only a stepping-stone to achieving it. The second assumption is the extreme opposite of the first: that the task of creating material necessities is merely foundational to higher pursuits. Such a perspective sees the production of food, clothing, and shelter in a starkly utilitarian light. Yet this too is incorrect, as we should not assume that because material security does not constitute the ultimate good, acquisition cannot therefore participate in the higher orders of human longing. Both of these perspectives are erroneous because they fail to integrate every dimension of the human person, creating a false opposition between the ends of the spirit and those of the body.

The resolution of this opposition lies in the integration of both poles; providing for our body should also foster the ends of the spirit. The man who decides to build a stone oven, or grow his own wheat, rather than buying his bread from the supermarket, has recognized that one does not merely bake bread in order to eat. If one is hungry then of course this is the priority, but even then the human spirit longs to go beyond, to penetrate into the deeper strata of reality and find in it something meaningful.

The spiritual and the material long to be united to one another; earth longs to be filled with heaven. When we forget one side of this equation, we find a side of ourselves being neglected. Either we live a purely animal existence, thinking of nothing but sleep and feed, or we live an overly-abstracted one, out of touch with our bodies and the elements that surround us. It seems that our culture has largely gone the direction of abstraction. We purchase pre-wrapped meat entirely disconnected from the animal that died to produce it; much of our entertainment, work, and learning is done virtually. Everything is handed to us distilled from its origin, floating above earth as light as an idea.

There may be an element of Gnosticism in this, a lifting of the human mind away from the realities of bodily existence, and it is interesting to note other tendencies in our culture that would have us disunite our identities from our corporeal reality (although I shall refrain from doing so here). Such an existence has proven itself ultimately unsatisfactory, however, and there is evidently a thirst to reunite the poles of our being. Such a path is narrow, and consists in the integration of our whole person through the marriage of heaven and earth that underlies our unique position as creatures. It entails the deepening of the quotidian, a recognition of the supramundane foundations of the smallest and most ordinary realities.

As I slipped deeper into the task of basket weaving, I found myself working until my wrists became sore, and afterwards my mind remained engaged with the rhythmic movements of the weave, and with the perception that this engendered. The craft began to take on an increasingly universal, even metaphysical, significance. My mind began to quietly ruminate upon images of the mythological fates as they wove the destinies of men, on spider’s webs, on the bonds of opposition that make up music. The ins and outs of the warp became the high and the low, the loud and the quiet.

The description of creation in Genesis, with all its interplay of above and below, looked increasingly to me like the weaving of a cosmic basket. This encounter with the metaphysical through the craft of basket making—as absurd as it may seem—became evidence to me of the presence of eternity within the temporal, and of the significance of the apparently banal. The fact that such an encounter occurred in engagement with the material is particularly important, for I have come to believe that this constitutes one of the fundamental tasks of humanity: to see the spiritual in every level of creation, the material included, and to facilitate the creation’s alignment with its spiritual ideal, pouring eternity out onto the temporal by helping creation to achieve its deepest end.

The acquisition of such a craft has helped me to see in a tangible way that resources are not mere quantities to be exploited, but realities to be known and fostered. We are called to be stewards of the creation, from the grossest minerals to the most refined of life forms, and this requires a deeper engagement than the modern world has made us accustomed to. Such a task requires respect, and it requires intimacy, even corporeal intimacy. This cannot be achieved except by a direct encounter with the realities that one is attempting to care for. It is this direct encounter with the world in all its corporeality and spiritual depths that I believe people are so hungry for, and which accounts for the popularity of these videos.

People are drawn to such things because those engaged in them have learned to encounter the world in a direct and personal way. The elements are no longer for them mere resources, but essences, phenomena of sensible and intelligible significance. They are responsive almost as life is responsive, yearning to find their proper ends. Such craftsmen, farmers, and cooks, have learned to make the fulfilling of our most basic needs into art, perhaps even into religion. The higher is brought to dwell within the lower through the mediation of human skill.

The great irony is that those who watch such videos are using one of the most advanced and abstract pieces of technology, the internet, to try and fulfill a need for an embodied directness of experience. Such a hunger, and the contradictory means of satisfying it, reflect some of the deepest failures of our society to recognize and meet the needs of humanity’s role as mediator.

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