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Who needs a knife?

Deep in my subconscious lies the proposition: An old man without a thin, gold pocketknife is not a real old man. He is a man who missed his calling: no ancient priest of creation, but a superannuated acolyte who never earned the badge of his profession. My ownership of a gold knife, therefore, is only a matter of time. I could not think myself ripe without it.

What is true of my family, however, may not be true of yours. Many men are so taken up with the world of machines that they think it idle to carry a pocketknife. After all, you say, chocolate bars are scored to break easily, cigars are now manufactured with holes in their heads, and the post office efficiently breaks all package strings before they reach the addressee. Who needs a knife?

Your points are well taken. Let me direct your attention, however, to some factors you may have overlooked. First, while chocolate bars can be eaten without a knife, many of life’s more satisfactory alfresco delicacies are intractable—even inaccessible—unless you have one. Candy never relieves the monotony of long family car trips half as well as an impromptu dispensation of sausages and cheese. Pepperoni, touristenwurst, landjaeger, cervelat, salami—name what you like—any of them, thrown whole into the back seat along with Daddy’s pocketknife, will provide more wholesome diversion than chocolate ever could. If your children are contentious, of course, it will tend to bring out the worst in them. But then, with contentious children, so will anything else. At least it keeps them fighting with each other, and not with their parents.

Your two other points may be dealt with more briefly. For the first: Not all cigars have holes in their heads; until they do, no wise man should go through life (unless he has elegantly sharp teeth and a miraculous bite) chomping the ends off expensive cigars. For the second: My only answer is that you have never received a package from me. What I tie up stays tied forever, unless you have a knife. You will sooner find a piece of postal clerk caught under my string than you will find the string missing from my package.

For the rest, however, let me simply ask you: How, without a pocketknife, do you pick a piece of privet blossom for a present to your second youngest daughter? How peel an orange to prove the goodness of creation? How amaze your friends with your ability to splice rope on a deserted beach? How open the clams you dig of an idle afternoon? (Even with a pocketknife, it isn’t easy; but it is something a gentleman should practice till he masters.) And lastly, how is the race of men to survive boring lectures, conferences, and committee meetings without a knife with which to whittle away the time? We give gold watches when men retire. To keep them sane, we should give them gold pocketknives when they start out.

— Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection 

More and more

“One can gain a lot of experience in a country practice,” I thought as I fell asleep, “but even so one must go on and on reading, reading . . . more and more . . .”

— Mikhail Bulgakov, “A Country Doctor’s Notebook”

We live in an age that, for all its multiplication of red-hot aids to living, is characterized increasingly by a singular lack of concern about how to live. Excellence has a hard time meeting competition in any age, but in ours we have made a real specialty of shoddiness and shallowness. We float with the tide. Our idea of the right direction is keeping our backs to the wind. Worse yet, our ability to mass-produce our specialties has surrounded us with more distractions than any age has ever had. There is more to hear, more to read, more to watch, and more to taste than even kings ever dreamed. We have arranged matters so that a man can go from kindergarten to the old-age home so surrounded by things to do that he need never decide what he is. The one question he must not ask is: Who am I? If he should happen to wonder, somebody quickly gets him a lollipop, or a new car, or another wife or a stronger tranquilizer. And the worst part of it is that the somebody, more often than not, is himself. If we were only the victims of distraction it would be bad enough, but we are its agents too.

— Robert Farrar Capon, Bed and Board

The most obvious question to be asked about any new technology—for example, interactive television, virtual reality, the Internet, or, for that matter, doorknobs and toasters that “understand” human speech—is, What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?

This question needs to be asked because there are technologies that are employed—indeed, invented—to solve problems that no normal person would regard as significant. Of course, any technology can be marketed to create an illusion of significance, but an intelligent, aware person need not believe it. There are those in high places and with easy access to our collective ear who, in speaking of the information superhighway, stress that it will make possible five hundred or a thousand television stations. Are we not, then, obliged to ask, Is this a problem that most of us yearn to have solved; indeed, need to have solved? Do we believe that having access to forty or fifty stations, as we
now do, is inadequate, that they are not sufficient to provide the information and amusement we require? Or let us take as another example talking to doorknobs so that they turn at the sound of our voice. What problem is solved here? Is it that turning a doorknob is a burden? Is it a question of making doorknobs less vulnerable to burglars? Is it simply a matter of celebrating our own technological genius?

I have been told that Bill Gates, whose fertile imagination never gives him or us a moment’s rest, dreams of a technology that would make obsolete the task of locating and then sending recordings into action. One approaches the machinery and speaks the words “Frank Sinatra” or “Pavarotti” or, if you can imagine it, “The Spice Girls,” and we hear them. May one ask, What is the problem solved by this? The answer, I am told, is speed. We are a people who measure our lives in seconds. Five seconds saved here, five seconds there, and at the end of the day, we have perhaps saved a minute. By year’s end, we have saved over five hours. At death’s door, we may allow ourselves a smile by gasping that we saved a month and a half, and no one will ask, But for what?

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

Shweder says that under the metaphor of accident or chance, “suffering is to be treated by the intervention of . . . agents who possess expert skills of some kind, relevant to treating the problem.” Traditional cultures believe that the main responsibility in dark times belongs to the sufferers themselves. The things that need to be done are forms of internal “soul work”—learning patience, wisdom, and faithfulness. Contemporary culture, however, does not see suffering as an opportunity or test—and certainly never as a punishment. Because sufferers are victims of the impersonal universe, sufferers are referred to experts—whether medical, psychological, social, or civil—whose job is the alleviation of the pain by the removal of as many stressors as possible.

But this move—making suffering the domain of experts—has led to great confusion in our society, because different guilds of experts differ markedly on what they think sufferers should do. As both a trained psychotherapist and an anthropologist, James Davies is in a good position to see this. He writes, “During the twentieth century most people living in contemporary society have become increasingly confused about why they suffer emotionally.” He then lists “biomedical psychiatry, academic psychiatry, genetics, modern economics” and says, “As each tradition was based on its own distinctive assumptions and pursued its own goals via its own methods, each largely favored reducing human suffering to one predominant cause (e.g., biology, faulty cognition, unsatisfied self-interest).” As the saying goes, if you are an expert in hammers, every problem looks like a nail. This has led to understandable perplexity. The secular model puts sufferers in the hands of experts, but the specialization and reductionism of the different kinds of experts leaves people bewildered.

Davies’s findings support Shweder’s analysis. He explains how the secular model encourages psychotherapists to “decontextualize” suffering, not seeing it, as older cultures have, as an integral part of a person’s life story. Davies refers to a BBC interview with Dr. Robert Spitzer in 2007. Spitzer is a psychiatrist who headed the taskforce that in 1980 wrote the DSM-III (third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) of the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM-III sought to develop more uniformity of psychiatric diagnoses. When interviewed twenty-five years later by the BBC, Spitzer admitted that, in hindsight, he believed they had wrongly labeled many normal human experiences of grief, sorrow, and anxiety as mental disorders. When the interviewer asked: “So you have effectively medicalized much ordinary human sadness?” Spitzer responded, “I think we have to some extent. . . . How serious a problem it is, is not known . . . twenty percent, thirty percent . . . but that is a considerable amount.”

— Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering

Perhaps We are all becoming autistic, in this broad sense. If so, it is not without reason. As the world becomes more confusing, seemingly controlled by vast impersonal forces (e.g., “globalization or collateralized debt obligations”) that no single individual Can fully bring within view; as the normative expectation becomes to land a cubicle job, in which the chain of cause and effect can be quite dispersed and opaque; as home life becomes deskilled (we outsource our cooking to corporations, our house repairs to immigrant guest workers); as the material basis of modern life becomes ever more obscured, and the occasions for skillful action are removed to sites overseas, where things are made; to sites nearby but socially invisible, where things are tended and repaired; and to sites unknown, where elites orchestrate commercial and political forces—when all of this is the case, the experience of individual agency becomes somewhat elusive. The very possibility of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world, and knowing that these actions are genuinely your own, may come to seem illusory.

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

First reduces to nothing

God creates everything out of nothing—and everything which God is to use he first reduces to nothing.

— Soren Kierkegaard