Matching Means to Needs

It is late August and there is still time to share another summer story. This adventure does not fall into the category of a “numinous experience”, but it does explore the boundaries between numinosity and being competent.

Yesterday I was speaking with a good friend and he told me about an experience at summer camp. It was talent night and he was invited to perform a skit where he was asked to do an improvised dance to his friend’s playing of the bongos. When he hesitated and protested that he might make a fool of himself, the friend laughed and said that one of the joys in life is playing the fool. I agree, and share a story about being willing to appear the fool before the world when your competence may not match the task.

One of the regular summer tasks for a homeowner is painting or having someone paint your home every seven to ten years. Because I have more time than money, I choose to paint my own house. For the past six months my wife, Nancy, has been reminding me of my duty. Particularly, she has pointed out the fact that the posts holding up the slate roof over the front porch are rotted. Last week, when I knew we had a week of dry weather in the forecast, I decided to begin the process of repairing and painting the exterior of the house.

Two of the five posts holding up the porch roof were indeed rotted. A screwdriver punched into the upper post sunk an inch deep into the wood. The reality of the damage was made worse when I exposed the load bearing joists overhead. A ten foot section of two by eights, three wide, was rotted out. When I showed the damage to Nancy, I admitted that this repair job required more skill than that of a simple house painter.

That afternoon I considered my options. Getting bids on the job and waiting until a contractor had time to do the work would delay painting the house. I went back outside to survey the project again. I paid particular attention to the structural supports for the slate roof: the roof rafters and ceiling joists for the porch. For a long time I pondered where to place jacks to hold up the roof while I did the repair work. I recognized the opportunity to look like a fool if I did not properly support the roof. Despite my trepidation, I went to Nancy and told her that I could do the job.

I did not sleep well that night. Every possible kind of failure ran through my mind: jacks placed in the wrong positions, or slipping from position when the weight came to bear upon them. After a restless night, I went out in the early morning to the porch. By first light I reviewed my plan for positioning the jacks. Satisfied that I had it right, I went to work and installed my four Tiger Brand Jackposts.  Slowly I removed the rotted timbers: first the two four by four posts, and then the three sections of two by eights. As I worked I was careful not to disturb my jacks.

It took nine hours of hard work and an occasional helping hand from Nancy to hold a board in position as I nailed it. When the job neared completion, Nancy went out to buy  food for dinner. She returned as I was carrying my tools back to the garage for the night and asked, “how’s it going?” I smiled and said, “done”.

I have performed for nearly forty years as an oral storyteller. Never have I felt more satisfied, more fulfilled after a performance than I did at that moment when I said to Nancy, “done”. She deserves a large part of the credit for the success of the project. If she had questioned my ability, I would have backed away and started the process to find a contractor to do the work. Instead, she simply asked how she could help me.

I started this essay by saying that my story would tell us more about the boundaries of competency than the experience of numinosity (the subject we have pursued recently) . If you look up the meaning of competence, it is defined as having, “sufficient means for one’s needs”. Certainly in the story I had questions about my competency as a carpenter. The feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment grew out of succeeding  at meeting the needs in the story. You could argue that my needs were pretty basic. I was not likely to experience the numinous in such a mundane adventure. Then again, I am reminded of the Kenneth Grahame story, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, that was quoted in an earlier writing. Mole and Rat do not set out to experience the numinous, they are simply trying to help another creature in need. The numinous comes to them as they apply their means to the needs of another.

The lesson and wisdom for me in thinking about this story is the relationship between  competency and numinosity. When we apply ourselves to matching our means to the needs of our world…and push our means to the limit…there is no telling the results. There is always the chance that we will look like a fool. There is a chance that we will simply feel satisfaction and fulfillment as in my story of the porch. But there is also the chance that pushing the boundries of competency will produce an experience of the numinous. Our purpose is not to choose but just push the boundries that limit us in this life.

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