This is a longer post than usual but I think you will find it worth your time to ponder the insights regarding the relationship of caring for things and caring for people. It is from Robert Farrar Capon’s book, Bed and Board:
It is sometimes easy to get the impression that Christians take a dim view of things—that they are much more in favor of indifference than caring. There is a lot of clucking over the evils of what is referred to as this materialistic age, and most people just take it at face value. But we are not a materialistic age at all. We would be better off if we were. We are the most devilishly spiritual of all ages: Poor old matter, like poor old flesh, takes a bad drubbing. Far from caring too much for it, we are forever busy beating it out of its natural shape into fetishes and status symbols which are more to our liking. Matter itself gets very few chances to speak. And therefore the usual sermons against it are off base. It isn’t matter that’s opposed to spirit—the two were designed to go together; what is opposed to spirit is perverted matter, uncared-for matter, unloved and unlovely matter. And matter doesn’t get that way on its own steam. It is perverted precisely by being cared for irrelevantly by spirit, by being loved, not for what it is, but for what it does for me and means to me.
True enough, Christians are told to deny themselves material things, but it’s very easy, to miss the point. The goal of all Christian self-denial is the restoration, not the destruction, of nature; the removal, not of matter, but of perversion. The saint fasts in order that someday his body, with all its parts and desires, may become whole and operative again. He is emphatically not trying to cease caring about matter. He is not in the business of stripping off a useless cocoon in order that the beautiful butterfly of his real self can fly free. The Christian religion is not about the soul; it is about man, body and all, and about the world of things with which he was created, and in which he is redeemed. Don’t knock materiality. God invented it.
Matter is actually more of a help than a hindrance to spirit. A soul without a body is a ghost; the traditional notion of ghosts as poor, lonely, helpless beings is sound. Without my body I am only half a man. Nor does Christ himself seem to spend much time complaining about materiality. He seems, in fact, to have enjoyed it. His reputation as a glutton and winebibber, undeserved though it undoubtedly was, must have had some foundation in fact. He seemed to care and he seems to intend that we should care, too. It’s not only that our lives inevitably will be involved with matter, but that they ought to be. Adam is made in the image of God. If God made things because he liked them, God’s image should not be surprised to find that, in his own proportion, he likes them too. Adam is the priest of creation. His truest work is to offer up reality itself, not just a head full of abstractions about it. Only the perversions of matter can be wrong. Things, as such, are never bad; they are not even indifferent. They are positively good. Let a man just once really face fish or fowl, bread or wine, shoelace or gummed label, and he will know he has by no means lowered himself. In lifting them up, he himself grows taller.
What we need to work up is a Christian materialism, and nowhere do we need it more than in the home. Marriage and family life are practically an inundation in matter. The world of the household is one long continuum of things; bed and board, food and drink, runny nose and soggy diaper are inescapably with us. Not all of them require the same degree of caring, but they all deserve a fair share, and we very commonly give it. With each man, however, the caring will be unique and personal. I cannot tell you what to care about. All I can manage to give you along these lines is a list of the things I care about, and a few peculiar reflections as to why. The only general remarks possible seem to be centered on the nature of caring, its marks and manifestations.
Take the marks first. I think possessions are the chief evidence of caring. Not that there aren’t many things we could all care about if we had the time or the money to afford them. There are, and as we acquire time or money, we should keep our eyes peeled for them. It is sad to see a man enter a more prosperous and leisured condition with the intention only to care more industriously about what he already likes. My wife says that as a child she cared mightily about condensed milk. So, I think, did my aunt: so much so that they both looked forward to adulthood and independent income as the occasion for the eventual possession and enjoyment of an unrestricted number of cans of condensed milk. Mercifully for us all, neither of them ever tried to realize the hope. They grew, and their caring grew with them. But though it grew, it grew only within the realm of the possible; even their expanded caring has not yet managed to attain to chinchilla and Cadillac. Time and money restrict us all.
But within those limits, possessions really do become the prime evidence of what we care about. The woman I delight in becomes my wife. The man I care about becomes my friend. The food I like becomes my dinner; favorite china, my china; a desired guitar, my guitar. All, to be sure, in so far as possible: but save for that limitation, if I care, I seek to possess. I do, and I should. Covetousness, greed, the lust for ownership, is only—is precisely—the perversion of care. It is the love not of things or people, but of having. It makes a good, not of goods, but of gain; and, in the long run, it makes a man quite unable to care for the real goods at all.
Two things follow from this. First, if care is shallow, possessions will be discarded. (They slip away, too, and they wear out, but that isn’t our doing.) The man who buys a boat will soon enough find out whether boating is one of his real cares. Our possessions make demands upon us; they form us as much as we form them. Most of us have an attic or a basement in which we bury the remains of our former fascinations. We once felt deeply about photography or golf, but over the years we learned differently. Closet and dump now hide the corpses of our shallow cares. With mere things, of course, the learning process is quite painless; all we lose is some time, a little money and perhaps a small quantity of face. But when it is our care for people that proves to have been trifling, the results are usually tragic. The discarded home-movie outfit is one thing, the discarded wife or child quite another. In either case, however, possession proves or disproves care.
Second, things are true to themselves, and must be loved for themselves. I begin my approach to everything and everybody as if it or he were my own bright idea. More, I most often buy on the same basis. But as the years wear down, I find there is more to it. I may begin with a notion in my head, but what I actually come to possess is both more and less than my bright idea: I get a thing or a person whose first concern is not my care but its own being. I get something which will prove my care on the stumbling block of its own stubborn materiality. You can buy a recorder, because you look on it as a flattering unction: It says something about your status as the modern version of Renaissance man. But you will stay with the recorder only if you really care for the recorder. The thing itself is limited, minor, and quite intractable. You will have to love it for itself if you are to put up with its nonsense. Status is never enough of a reason for possession. Things demand more of us than we think. They are not waiting around simply to add a grace note to our mental symphony of being. They insist upon being met in person, on being loved. If they are not, they will sooner or later insist upon being left.
Perhaps the largest single trouble with our abundance of possessions is the fact that so many of them are owned, not because of what they are, but because of what they confer on us. They are there, but we seldom look at them. We have so much, but we love precious little of it for itself. After the itch of the mind has been scratched, matter itself goes into the discard; the junkyard is the true monument of our society. We have the most marvelous garbage the world has ever produced. Literally. Have you ever looked hard at a tin can? Don’t. It will break your heart to throw it out, all silver and round and handy. But the truth is you have to throw it out.
We produce so much that there isn’t time or room to keep it. What is sad, though, is that the knack of wonder goes into the trash can with it. The tinfoil collectors and the fancy ribbon savers may be absurd, but they’re not crazy. They are the ones who still retain the capacity for wonder that is the root of caring. When a little boy finds an old electric motor on a junk heap, he is pierced to the heart by the weight, the windings, and the silent turning of it. When he gets it home, his mother tells him to throw it out. Most likely he will cry. It is his first and truest reaction to the affluent society. He usually forgets it, but we shouldn’t. He is sane; society isn’t. He possesses because, he cares. We don’t.
The little boy won’t carry us all the way, however. Finding wonders in the rubbish isn’t enough; we show our care as much by the size of our effort as by the fact of possession. It is not only whether we have, but how hard we work at having, at holding, and at using, that is the test of care. I look around at my library. It looks like a priest’s library, all right, but it says one thing very loudly to anyone with enough background to catch it: This priest is not a scholar. He thought he was one once, and began to act like one once, but his library proves that real scholarship is not his real care. There are too many holes in the crucial sections, and too much filler even where there aren’t holes. This is, a day laborer’s library: real care in a few spots, but no monumental absorption across the board. I look at my collection of recorders. That says something different. Here is somebody who really cares. Time and effort have been put in on this. There is a real progress toward the best. I look at my wine cellar. It is small, but it says even more complimentary things than my recorder collection.
Now, the fascinating thing about my odd assortment of cares is that each care stands on its own feet. Its first justification is not its importance but its depth. I care a lot about wines and music; but I am better at theology and Greek than at either of my apparently more careful cares. That is due to talent. It is the old story of the professional baseball player working hardest at his golf game. It is the way we are built, and while it can get badly out of hand, it is not all bad. The real point remains: Caring is what counts most. Any effort spent in caring for even a minor good is on the side of the angels. And it is contagious; the minor can spread to the major. I developed a time schedule for writing only after I successfully made time to practice the recorder. I acquired a working knowledge of what care felt like, and then transferred it to a field where I knew I should care more than I did.
Now, it is precisely the ignorance of what care feels like that is one of the roots of our trouble. We are unprepared for effort; it has become far too easy to achieve the results of care without caring. If I have to travel to the theater, my care is reinforced—I have a stake in the venture. If all I have to do is throw a switch in my living room, my care grows weaker. The process is not of course inevitable, but it is frighteningly common. Boys will not learn to care for the crafts because the minimal effort involved in assembling the usual plastic kit leads them to shy away from the real operations. It leaves them unprepared for the long labor of learning to plane edges straight by hand or turn a bead properly with a skew chisel. And it isn’t just boys. All of us can achieve overnight, via one bright idea and the installment plan, things for which we would otherwise have made much longer and larger efforts, and which we would have loved more in the end. My mother painted her own china by hand over the course of many years. Quite apart from its superb good taste, it is a testament of care. In, my boyhood, it drove me mad to have to be so fussy with it, but I am glad now I grew up with it. I take great pains to bore my children with the details of its origin. They should know what care can do. Neither they nor I need very many of the ready-to-run gadgets or easy-to-build kits the world offers us. Not that the kits themselves are bad—for those who have already learned to care, they are marvelous examples of the loving devotion of planners and die makers. It’s just that they tend to reinforce the carelessness all around us. Tb e society is moving toward the dangerous situation in which only a few will be able to care enough to bother about excellence. At that point we will be sitting ducks, for anybody’s hunt.
The final thing I would call a mark of care is the absence of big mistakes. This is more relative than the others, to be sure—real accidents do happen and some’ people are accident-prone—but it is still worth mentioning. We like to think that our big trouble is weakness of will; we act as if we really had a hard time bringing anything off. But that’s not true. The things we really care about in a big way get done with remarkable efficiency. If we continually fail to bring off something we think we care about, it may well be that we don’t really care as much about it as we thought we did. I’m not going to press this; talent has a lot to do with success, and so, to a degree, does plain unvarnished luck. But all that to one side, effectiveness is a good test of caring. My mother, after all, did finish her china. I, after all, do know quite a bit about wines and recorders. My wife, after all, can bring off a six-course dinner. The real point is not that there aren’t things that can wreck even the most careful caring, but that there are points in every subject beyond which you can’t go without care. It is at those places that the careless man makes his big mistake and blows the whole thing.
This is true in everything, but it is especially true when it comes to dealing with what is most important of all: people. We take up with other people for all kinds of reasons. If we really care for them, there will very likely be no big mistakes; but if we care mostly for what they mean to us or do for us, we can, and usually will, make some whoppers. Most divorces and wrecked friendships are the result of care that, was just too small to prevent the big blunder. At the outset, it seemed big enough for anybody, no doubt, but time is the real test. This isn’t quite as dire as it sounds. First of all, care does tend to repair mistakes; therefore any care, even inadequate, may help as long as it is not deliberately killed off. Second, care can be learned; it can be deepened by acting as if you had it, by doing the things that constitute the true marks of care, even if you have to do them a bit woodenly at first. There is a place for pretense, as long as, the basic intention is not to fool the onlookers, but simply to care more.
Now at this point, you may have noticed something. Most of my illustrations of caring have so far come from the realm of hobbies. Let me defend the choice. It seems to me that in the kind of society we now have, and in the even more automated, canned and quick-frozen one into which we are headed, hobbies will inevitably constitute the most intelligible areas of caring open to the likes of us. One qualifier. If a man can find work that really consumes him—if he can care so greatly for his job that in every waking hour he burns over his real work—then what I am saying about hobbies applies to him in his work. Such men and women are rare. They are either great producers or great crackpots, but they are single-minded and single-cared as the rest of us are not. St. Augustine does not seem to have had a hobby; Bach’s side interest seems to have been just more music. There is nothing quite like that kind of care, but it depends on two things not available to the general, membership of the crowd: considerable talent and really fascinating work. Talent has, of course, always been in short supply; but in our day fascinating work is also getting, harder to come by. As the machines become more refined, it begins to look as if only the machine designers will have anything genuine to care about. The rest of us will just be baby-sitters for their brain children. Of course, there is always the hope that automation could be made to fulfill its promise, and actually do all the routine work, and that, at the same time, creative and absorbing jobs could be provided so that we could all have work worthy of care. It’s a hope, all right, but don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, it would be better to pursue some more likely minor cares as hobbies.
Furthermore, even people with fascinating jobs have hobbies. The world is indeed full of a number of things. It not only invites the interest of the open-eyed; it practically extorts it. The guitar, for example, is a world in itself; even a partial exploration is utterly captivating. So, I suppose, is skiing for the sportsman, boats for the yachtsman, and cooking for the true amateur. And there is the word. The amateur. The lover who sees that play matters. When God made the world it is unlikely that he found it hard work. All the pictures of drudges slaving over watchmaking are not nearly as good a likeness of the Creator as one little boy blowing soap bubbles through his thumb and forefinger. He doesn’t do it because he has to—only because he likes to. The magnificent result is not labored but thrown off in an odd moment. A true hobby is the achievement through play of something very close to the creator’s own delight.
Unfortunately, we frequently misunderstand. We tend to look on a hobby as a diversion; what it really is is a concentration. Anybody who has had a real hobby knows that it is always potentially a tyrant. It can ruin your sleep, empty your wallet and monopolize your time. It needs watching, but nonetheless it is about as close to the truth of things as most of us ever, get. The model locomotive builder at his basement bench is a priestly recluse. The ski enthusiast practicing alone on the slope is a true hermit of the natural religion of things. Man is set apart in order to offer and to worship. The hobbyist sees his vocation precisely as a personal call to do it himself.
Do it yourself. The phrase is solid. It is a testimonial to the fact that no matter how far gone the age may be, nature still fights back. Even the coming great automated beehive finds itself incongruously (but mercifully) encouraging hobbyists. Nature fights. But it has a long way to go to win. The sad thing about so many of the hobbies that are available is that they are tackled only with the modest enthusiasm appropriate to diversions. And worse than that, a lot of the stuff offered to us for our care is just plain fake. I look at my sons’ plastic kits. The box advertises: embossed details. What a monumental giveaway of the whole phony system by which we are taught to care chiefly for results rather than things. Details grow out of care; they cannot be embossed. I remember making model furniture as a teenager. One piece was a colonial drop-leaf table. I had to make the hinges by hand—four of them, ¼” x ¼”, out of sheet tin and pins. It took hours and it took care, but it was a triumph that no plastic snap hinge with embossed screws and fake joints can ever match. Some years back I made a 50-inch model sailboat controlled by clockwork and steered by a homemade version of what is known as a Fisher vane gear. I made all my own hardware and mechanism. The whole thing was exactly a priestly experience. I am a priest, and I know how close the two are. Detail is the hallmark of care; embossing is the triumph of result. And we live in an embossed society. The paper napkins are embossed, the plastic kits are embossed, and most of the rest of the paraphernalia comes out of molds. Dolls and toys, bottles and boxes, have only the shape we arbitrarily stamp upon them. The matter itself goes begging. Listen.
It is possible to buy a plastic guitar, designed for children, and equipped with a gadget that clamps over the fingerboard. It is very clever. Out of the top of it project buttons on which are embossed the names of various chords, G, C, D7, and so on. The buttons are connected to bars which press down the appropriate strings at the proper frets. The sales pitch is: Even a child can play the guitar. People think it’s great. I think it is dreadful. It’s fake all the way through. It has nothing more to do with guitar playing than pressing a jukebox button does. It is aimed not at the marvelous materiality of the guitar, but at the production of a distinctly inferior result. It is strictly an embossed detail, music slapped on from the outside. And there is so much else like it that it makes your blood run cold. I’ll skip over the cake mixes and the frozen sauces and proceed directly to the last abomination: canned Chinese food. Of all the master strokes by which man has really paid attention to the matter he deals with, Chinese, cooking may well be the most brilliant. No vegetables receive more appropriate and loving care; in no other case are they cooked more quickly or served more freshly colored and flavored. How can a society in its right mind even conceive of equating the real thing with a can full of soggy celery, limp onions and waterlogged Oriental goodies? I will tell you how. By first of all ignoring the real merits of the thing itself, and then selecting one aspect of it for makeshift imitation. They throw in some garlic and ginger, and suggest that you drown the whole mess in domestic soy sauce, which again is about as much like the genuine article as salted shellac.
No care for things. Therefore no love of detail. Therefore more and more embossed fakes. And therefore, no excellence. And of all the societies that can’t, afford this kind of nonsense we are absolutely it. We are so highly elaborated, so completely wired and mechanized, that the failure of even one soldered connection could mean the loss of the whole world. Yet except for a few specialists, we are producing a race less and less likely to bother about anything. We are simultaneously expanding detail and shrinking care. Our comeuppance may well make no long tarrying.
Now, all this comes home with a vengeance. It isn’t only a matter of embossed doilies and canned chow mein. Half the things around us aren’t real. The average house is filled with fakes; fake drawer pulls and fake drawers, cast-iron trivets made of plastic, and table lamps made out of fake coffee grinders, fake pastry and fake whipped cream, cheese, spread full of vegetable gum, and not, even an old jar of unhydrogenated peanut butter to take the curse off it all. We are being dealt with at removes. And we are beginning to deal at removes. We are so used to getting the fast result that we have no patience for detail. Care does not come in a pressurized can; accordingly, it is not our kind of item. We have developed some of the worst features of what used to be referred to as the idle rich. We use, but we use without attention and without appreciation. We sometimes have a general notion of what is excellent, but we can’t manage the detail required to reproduce it. We just don’t care enough to bother.
Item. My wife makes Danish pastry. The real thing—all butter and homemade almond filling. When people taste it they know right away it’s good, though most of them really don’t know how good. Nevertheless, in any group there are usually one or two who say, “This is delicious; you must give me the recipe.” When they hear it, their jaws drop. They simply cannot conceive of even beginning to care enough to master the pastry technique which is essential to good Danish. And even if they did, 90 per cent of them would still ask the other eternal question: “Can you substitute margarine for the butter?” They love results, but they are unprepared for the fuss required to produce great ones.
Item. Every now and then my wife and I pitch in and make strudel, usually in the fall when the apples are perfect. The result is first-class; people rave. As usual, though, the girl who wants the recipe is right in there pitching. When it is finally explained to her, we get even blanker looks than before. Danish is fussy, but strudel is practically nothing but baked detail. I tell them patiently about slamming the dough on the pastry board a hundred times, about letting it relax in a warm place for half an hour, about flouring a whole tablecloth, about rolling the dough, and about removing finger rings and wristwatches before you begin the crucial work of stretching it with the backs of your hands till it covers the dining room table. That’s only the beginning, of course, but most of them fall away before that much is over. As far as they’re concerned, it’s just too High Church. They are totally unprepared for the fact that it is precisely all that detail that makes the difference. Every bit of it was designed out of respect for the matter in hand. There isn’t an idle ceremony in the whole rite.
Item. When I serve a really good bottle of wine, I am fussy. I don’t have very many of the grands seigneurs, but I do manage to keep a few of their near neighbors in the more reasonable price ranges. I would not think of uncorking my Cos d’Estournel ’45 or my Lynch-Bages ’52 or my Corton-Charlemagne ’59 at the last minute before serving. The cork must come out an hour or so in advance, to let the air go to work on the bouquet. I explain this to anybody who makes the mistake of seeming interested. He looks at me as if I were some kind of pretentious snob with a penchant for baroque rituals. “Come, now,” he says, “it doesn’t make that much difference. I always uncork mine just before serving, and it tastes very good.” I usually mumble something polite and non-directive at him, but someday I’m going to say what I think: O.K., friend, have it your way, but don’t tell me there’s no difference. If you can’t tell good, from great, so much the worse for your taste buds; I can, and it’s loving detail that separates them.
That’s enough. I could go on endlessly about the whole culture without even leaving the table. In one short phrase: We are being flooded with matter about which nobody gives a damn. But the really frightening part is that the attitude begins to rub off. No home can be built without that love of detail which is the hallmark of care, yet we seem to be getting less and less able to bother. People cannot be fed without detail, children cannot be taught manners without detail, wives cannot be kept happy without detail. But in our super-spirituality, we expect that a handful of good intentions and a head full of bright ideas are quite enough to make a home. The truth is, though, that matter, will break us unless we love it for itself and start paying some very careful attention to its demands. We are not angels; there are no disembodied intelligences in my household. We are all things here, from the raisins in the cake to the father at his table. For the likes of us there is no middle ground between care and catastrophe.