This week we are looking at chapter 4, “’The Woodcarver’: A Model for Right Action,” in Parker Palmer’s book, The Active Life. Palmer is drawing on another story by the ancient Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu.
Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of prescious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. The said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”
Khling replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were no to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting, I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.
“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.
“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits. (55-56)
Palmer suspects that many people will find this story a bit on the romantic side. Does it really apply to our contemporary work world?
Many people feel hampered by the hierarchies in which we often must work, by institutional structures that curtail the independence that we think we need to do our creative best. But few people work in a setting as demanding as the woodcarver’s. … When I ask Chinese scholars what would have happened if Khing had failed to produce a bell stand acceptable to the prince, they usually answer with a sweeping movement of the forefinger across the front of the throat. (57)
Few of us work under such demanding circumstances and yet the woodcarver seems to us to take on odd approach in completing his task. Palmer writes that after years of reflection on this story he sees four “critical junctures” in the story where an element of work is revealed that we can learn from. “The four elements are motives, skills and gifts, ‘the other,’ and results.” (58) Palmer unpacks these four elements during the rest of the chapter.
Each action has a motive behind it. Khing is not making the bell stand out of some whimsical desire to create but in response to a command by the prince. He must do this to survive. This may not be the most desirable motivation for action but it is what is. However, once the action is set in motion, Khing has the freedom to choose how he will complete his task. He begins by fasting to cleanse himself of all the destructive pressures and motivations that will hinder him from authentically engaging his task. By forgetting the details of his present context he was able to re-member … join back together the authentic pieces of his identity … and act out of who he truly was. Palmer writes:
… If we are to transcend the motives and context that so often limit and distort our action, we must enter into our versions of fasting, forgetting, and dying. (64)
As I read this section my mind kept going to this passage in the Bible:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ. NRSV
R. Paul Stevens notes that ministry is not defined by what we do but rather by who we serve. It is critical to continually “re-member” our identity as servants of Christ in the face of a world that endlessly seeks to dismember us with other motives.
Skills and Gifts.
Khing resists the adulation thrust upon him for his work and thereby the temptation to unreflectively throw himself into his task. His skill is not superhuman. His workmanship comes from experience, practice, and awareness. People often give such accolades (“the work of the spirits”) to an accomplished craftsman because ascribing high quality of work to supernatural sources frees them of reflecting on how poorly devoted they have been to their own development. Khing is not letting others off the hook.
Palmer goes on to reflect on a distinction between innate abilities we possess and skills we have learned. He writes:
The skills we are most aware of possessing are often those we have acquired only through long hours of study and practice, at considerable financial or personal cost. Precisely because these skills once cost us effort to acquire, and still cost us effort to employ, we are acutely aware of owning them. Ironically, these self-conscious skills are often not our leading strengths; if they were, they would not be so effortful. But they are our strengths upon which we sometimes build our identities and our careers – though we build on an anxious, uncertain foundation. Meanwhile, our native, instinctive gifts either languish unused and unappreciated or get used unconsciously without being named and claimed. (66)
Concerning the woodcarver, Palmer observes:
… the woodcarver possesses several other gifts [other than technical woodcarver skills], all of which are essential to the mastery he demonstrates: the capacity to wait patiently for insight to emerge, the capacity to trust in the outcomes of uncertain process, the capacity to take risks under pressure, the capacity to speak his truth even when it is not what people want to hear. (67)
To discover our innate abilities, Palmer suggests we might want to reflect on our earliest memories as a child and remember how we spent our time. What things brought us pleasure and what things we could not abide? By going back to early memories of ourselves we can recapture what we naturally did before we were socialized to conform to particular norms or to ground our identity in acquired skills. I was counseled to do this a few years ago. I think the exercise was one of the most important acts of self-discovery I have ever done.
Action always involves an “other,” whether other people or other objects. “Right action requires knowledge of the other’s nature, which means knowledge of its potentials and limits, of what it can and cannot do.” (70)
In this section I think Palmer is wrestling with a polarity. We are not intended to leave the world untouched in a pristine primitive state but neither are we to treat the “other” as only raw material to be shaped for utilitarian purposes. In this sense, I’m reminded of Darrell Cosden (Theology of Work) who reminds us that the natural order is simultaneously the raw material out of which we fashion artifacts and also our home. Embracing either pole without the other is dehumanizing. Our human existence is one of correctly discerning how we work in harmony with other, even as we reshape it.
Palmer does not deny that achieving results are important but he pushes back against the idea that the only meaningful, or even primary, thing is the results.
“… As long as ‘effectiveness’ is the ultimate standard by which we judge our actions, we will act only toward ends we are sure we can achieve. People who undertake projects of real breadth and depth are very unlikely to be “effective,” since effectiveness is measured by short-term results (never mind the fact that such people may be creating cultural legacies by their “failures”). But people with small visions will win the effectiveness awards, since those projects are so insignificant that they can almost always ‘succeed’ (never mind the fact that they contribute nothing of real merit to the commonweal). (75)
Palmer tells of a friend who said, “’I have never asked myself if I was being effective, but only if I was being faithful.’” (76) But Palmer goes on to add:
Again, results are not irrelevant. We rightly care about outcomes; we have to live with them, and being accountable for them is part of right action. But to make results the primary measure of action is a sure path to either inanity or insanity. The only standard that can guide and sustain us in action worth taking is whether the action corresponds to the reality of the situation, including the reality of our own inward nature.
The paradox is that faithful action does get results. … (78-79)
Finally, Palmer reminds us the when we act we are not only shaping the “other” but we are also shaping ourselves.
Do you feel trapped in your work, compelled to do work that may not be your first choice or work for which your employer is seeking to motivate you in ways that dismember your true identity? What do you think of Palmer’s idea of “re-membering” ourselves?
Have you ever deeply reflected on your childhood to discover what things brought you pleasure or dissatisfaction? What does such reflection tell you about the innate abilities God has given you?
It what ways do you experience a tension between seeing the world as raw material and as home that nourishes us?
How have you seen the tension between results and faithfulness played out in your own life?