My dad was in the Army and served in Vietnam in the mid 1960s. In typical Pete Lukens fashion he doesn’t discuss his military service much, but not because he is unwilling to; he has always answered any question I ever asked after all. Rather, it is just his way to quietly do what needs to be done, no matter how difficult, without asking for much in the way of recognition. A story my grandmother told me several times is that my father never even told anyone when he was coming home from Vietnam; he just showed up on my grandparent’s doorstep in North Wales, Pennsylvania one day. He did his duty, came home, and moved on with his life, career, and family. Doing one’s duty without complaint or expectation of reward is a good quality to emulate. No doubt an important lesson for a young man, but it is not the most important thing I learned from him.
I also learned from my father to always have a keen argument prepared if you want to debate because opinions are worthless if you haven’t done the hard work of crafting a strong case. I guess it is of no surprise what I do for a living and that I enjoy a good debate. Most of all, he taught me that it is worth knowing things just for the sake of knowing; learning is intrinsically, not just instrumentally good. Being prepared and educated and logical is a good quality to emulate. It is a very important lesson that I have learned from him, but it is not the most important lesson
I could probably go on and on about several more such things to be admired and emulated, but I want to really discuss is why teaching my brother and me how to build and fix things wound up being the foundation of greater virtue.
Building and fixing sounds secondary to duty and preparedness and logic and all the other virtues, right? Let me explain further then, because building and fixing is what has most often allowed me to exercise those virtues.
Clearly, there are some practical implications to knowing one’s way around a table saw and framing square:
- I rarely if ever need to hire a contractor to work on my home which has saved us tens of thousands of dollars over the past few years
- If and when I do hire a contractor I can tell a good one from a bad one and know if they are trying to rip me off
- I can build things for my home that are completely unique
- Having carpentry/home improvement skills was a great side hustle when I was in college and graduate school
- I am pretty sensitive to the charge that academics are effete and lacking any practical skill so I like to maintain a pair of callused, working hands
- I like being able to assist friends and family when they need help with their homes
- I like to think that I am impressing my wife with my construction worker like manliness though I’m not sure she sees it that way
- Working with my hands is entirely different from what I do professionally and is therefore a nice diversion
If we consider just these instrumental things then it would seem that Pete Lukens passed on to my brother and me some practical skills and perhaps a good hobby that makes us useful. It is however much deeper and more important than that. The most important thing that Pete Lukens taught his boys was not the manual skills per se, but rather the will and desire to exercise those skills.
The most important thing that Pete Lukens taught his boys was to be spirited men.
To be clear, I’ve never heard my father use the term “spirited men;” I am borrowing the term from Matthew Crawford because it ably captures what my father taught us. To be a spirited person does not mean to be loud or ostentatious. Anyone who knows my father knows that he is certainly not those things. Rather, the spirited person is one who is engaged in the struggle for individual agency in the face of a world that is hyper-specialized, hyper-technological, hyper-consumerist, and hyper-disposable. In short, and to borrow another phrase from Crawford, my father taught us the skills and more importantly the will to be “the master of our own stuff.”
“It is characteristic of the spirited man that he takes an expansive view of the boundary of his own stuff—he tends to act as though any material things he uses are in some sense properly his, while he is using them—and when he finds himself in public spaces that seem contrived to break the connection between his will and his environment, as though he had no hands, this brings out a certain hostility in him.” (Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, 2009).
I relate to this hostility as I find more and more things in my life designed to prevent me from knowing how they work or that put their functioning outside my command. I also feel this hostility whenever I encounter building permit rules that seek to take away my ability to work on my own home so that I must hire it out to a professional who may or may not exercise the same care that I do. It is a constant assault on our agency, and it is the nature of the spirited person to resist that assault and to fight to maintain his or her self-reliance.
“A decline in tool use” writes Crawford “would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair.”
Remaining spirited in the face of increasing passivity and dependence is a good in itself, but there is more to my father’s lessons on building and fixing than the bulwark it has afforded me against the feelings of lost agency or decline into disposability and consumerism. Surely I could be content just knowing that I can do a thing. Perhaps my family would derive a sense of security just knowing that should a pipe spring a leak or a toilet not flush or a light need replacement I could do it in a pinch. After all, as two professionals, we could argue that it is good I have such “emergency knowledge” but that my time and my wife’s time is better dedicated to activities that further our respective careers. Hire a plumber. Hire and electrician. Hire a carpenter. Our elite educations and career choices have disburdened us from having to do home repairs. I think that this is probably a common refrain these days, and is probably why I know very few people now who even mow their own lawns. I just can’t get behind this sort of reductionist economic argument though, and I cringe at the idea that my education or economic station have somehow disburdened me. It is a cringe worthy idea mostly because I don’t find deploying these manual skills to be a burden. The reason why needs some explanation.
What my father taught my brother and me as did every parent who ever handed down these skill to his or her children is that value is not just in the outcomes we achieve like a light that works or a lawnmower that now runs or the utility of a new built in bookcase of our own design. There is value in the activity itself separate from the material results. Here I will lean on (as Crawford does) the work of Alisdair MacIntyre. In After Virtue MacIntyre differentiates between goods that are internal and external to a practice. External goods are easy to grasp as they are the tangible products which I may produce myself or I may have produced by paying another: a shelf, a new bathroom, etc. However, there are also goods that are internal to a practice that are available only to the person who engages in the practice. Regardless of the finished product (or even lack thereof) there is the satisfaction of exercising a skill like crafting wood or fixing a door that won’t close properly or installing a tile back splash. There is a sense of accomplishment available only to the craftsperson. More than that, there is the opportunity our labor gives us to engage with others and contribute in some meaningful way; it was a chance for my brother and me to spend time with our father and a chance for me to spend time with my wife and daughter or an opportunity to help a friend or neighbor fix their house.
To be sure, there are economic benefits to not having to hire a contractor and being able to build “sweat equity” in one’s home, but to me those are secondary to what working with my hands allows me to express. For instance, ever since we bought our house my wife has complained that her closet was dark and difficult to access (which it was) so I renovated it along with the rest of the bedroom. I guess I could say I love you by buying some flowers or a Valentine’s day card, but I would rather build something—surely this also meets the definition of a good internal to a practice!
Politicians, philosophers, and sociologists across the political spectrum have gotten a lot of mileage out of bemoaning the increase in listlessness and decline of spiritedness in American society, especially among its young men. The decline is epitomized in consumerism and passive consumption without accompanying production. What some have termed decadence can on a personal level be understood as a lack of spiritedness. I don’t think my father ever put in quite these terms, but implicit in what he taught my brother and me is best captured by Raymond John Baughan.
“Run, climb, work, and laugh; the more you give out, the more you shall receive. Be exhausted, and you shall be fed. Men do not really live for honors or for pay; their gladness is not in the taking and holding, but in the doing, the striving, the building, the living. It is a higher joy to teach than to be taught. It is good to get justice, but better to do it; fun to have things but more happy to make them. The happy man is he who lives the life of love, not for the honors it may bring, but for the life itself. (The Uniscovered Country, 1946)”
That, my friends is the quintessence of spiritedness. We do things not for reward or recognition, but because of the good internal to the practice: the satisfaction of doing and giving. Along the way to learning that lesson I have learned many other great lessons: craftsmanship, thoughtfulness, preparedness, self reliance, and a keen grasp of my duty to family and community. The spirited person excitedly looks upon a problem or challenge as an opportunity to coolly think through a solution and to patiently, thoughtfully, carefully, and yes even lovingly, see that solution to completion. When we complete a task, not mater what that task is, we take satisfaction not merely in the products of that task alone, but also in the doing that has permitted us to be our best selves. So thank you Dad for teaching Mark and me to be spirited men. I am teaching Elsie to be a spirited woman.
An I bet you thought you were just teaching me righty tighty lefty loosey and to measure twice and cut once.