Saturday, September 05, 2009

Creating ourselves: a theology of hobbies (Sunday Reflections for September 6, 2009)

Well, enough for now about sex and Lutherans. Or as they used to say on Monte Python: “And now for something completely different.”

A couple weeks ago I started taking a weaving class. I have dabbled in arts and crafts things over the years but not done anything recently. My experience with the arts scene on this last trip to Santa Fe (as I wrote about a few weeks ago) reawakened that interest. Through the Indian, and especially Navajo, communities weaving has a significant presence in New Mexico. In addition to the making of traditional rugs and blankets, people there pursue a variety of fabric and textile arts, both functional and decorative. For whatever reason, I’ve been drawn to weaving’s use of vivid color and pattern, the potential for abstract expression, and their textural qualities.

So far it’s going well. I have a great teacher and it’s a “work at your own pace” arrangement. The school is in a small storefront and there are only a few people there at any one time. It is relaxing and energizing at the same time and there is a Zen quality to it all. Like most new experiences weaving is, or can be, a lot more complicated than I realized. I have a lot to learn but it’s good to know this is an activity where there will always be something new to learn or try.

It will be awhile, though, before I can answer the primary question we always have with a new activity: Is it me? I was in a store in a small town between Santa Fe and Albuquerque that had hand woven items for sale. I asked the woman working there if she had made any of them. Oh no, she said. I paint and do other things and I tried weaving, but it just wasn’t me.

I knew what she meant and I think any of us would. “That’s not me.” We say it all the time. It can be in reference to an item of clothing, a potential new car, a cuisine, or some kind of hobby, recreational activity, or (perhaps especially) a job. Something about them doesn’t fit who we are. And we say “Now that’s me” when we find a connection, a comfort level, a familiarity.

I’m not sure we are aware of how new such experiences are, historically speaking. Of course, people have always had unique physical traits, personalities, and abilities. Until fairly recently, however, the options for “self-expression” were pretty limited. Indeed that term is a very modern one, rarely if ever used or thought of in the ancient world. For the vast majority of people, gender roles were rigidly fixed, vocations were passed on from one generation to the next, material possessions were very limited, there was little variety in clothing, and so forth.

In other words, people had relatively few choices to make and therefore few ways to really standout from everyone else. Indeed, “standing out” was usually not perceived as a good thing. Where it was accepted was in the quality of your work or the possession of a special talent. You could be faster or stronger, more skilled at some craft, or be able to play a musical instrument or tell good stories. In general, however, people had little sense that they needed to express themselves. They simply were who they were and most of that was determined for them, by chance and/or by God.

Enter the modern world. If there is anything that characterizes our world today it is “freedom of choice.” Children are hardly in school and they’re being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” an unimaginable question just a few generations ago (and for some yet today). It is what going to the “New World” was all about: freedom, opportunity, doing and being what you wanted. We forget what a radical notion America’s founders had, that all people are equal and born with a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And through the insights of modern psychology we have come to learn that an essential ingredient for being happy is possessing the freedom to discover and to be who we are. “I gotta be me.”

Freedom, of course, has its own challenges. We don’t always know what to do with our freedom. We don’t always have the courage to fully exercise it. “Who am I? What do I want to be?” We’ve come to think of these as the classic questions of adolescence, yet increasingly people find themselves confronted by them throughout their lives. Lifestyles come and go, jobs come and go, kids come and go, spouses come and go, physical abilities come and go. We are constantly given and confronted with new choices, new opportunities, new ways of “being me.”

Getting a handle on all of this is the challenge of modern living. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by seemingly having too many choices. Then choices are taken away as chance and circumstances throw unexpected curves at us. Plans and dreams are forced to change. We make bad choices or choices that don’t turn out the way we expected. “I guess this really isn’t me.”

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that we’re all pretty new at this. For thousands of years, humans had all they could do just to stay alive long enough to make more humans. Even as civilization developed most people’s lives were pretty basic—and pretty short (few worries about retirement). Our lives now are much fuller, and more complicated, but also—I think we have so say—more human.

“Be fruitful and multiply” God tells his new human creation in Genesis. Even there it meant more than just having babies. It meant grow, build, learn, create, discover. It’s what the Bible understood to be what set us apart from the rest of creation.

One aspect of modernity has been the proliferation of hobbies. Some historians date the beginning of the modern era to the day when a man climbed a mountain for the first time just for the view. While civilization tends to grow in its factories, offices and laboratories, increasingly individuals grow in their spare time, their play, since most find their work to be inadequate expressions of who they fully are.

As a result we look for other outlets, other means of self-expression, in an array of activities that is nearly uncountable and always growing. Some eventually transform their hobby into their work, achieving the goal advocated by most job counselors today: do what you love. Whether we accomplish that or not we are each pursuing the goal of discovering me and being me. Our family, our friendships, our work, and our hobbies together are the multi-faceted, complicated, and unique ways we each accomplish that task. In doing so we are, in fact, being fully human: doing what we are created to do and discovering who we truly are.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A low imactt hobby (on the environment) like weaving is a good choice. I started music, but that's a slow process for me.

Finding something fulfilling, in spite of the initial difficulty in training your body and mind to do it well, is pretty enligntening.

It's fun to watch someone weave. My sister did it years ago. I loved the deep sky Hubble photos you posted a few weeks ago too. Looking back in time, watching the present universe being fabricated.
I wonder when it will be finished?
I guess it is pretty much finished. How long before we wear it out? David Mc