Sharpening pencils with an axe: revisiting discernment

Posted: July 6, 2015 in Uncategorized

Today I find myself thinking about Discernment, and its younger siblings Differentiation, Distinction, and Definition.

Years ago, I found myself in the wilderness on a mountain-side with a dozen or so spiritual retreaters in a week-long woodland ceremony. It was the first morning, I think, and those present were to soon begin working toward various assigned tasks to prepare for the week to follow. I had spent my morning carrying, and/or chopping, firewood.

One of the hosts — I had no part in the leadership or facilitation of this — came to my camp site and asked me if I could use my knife to chop stake-points into the business-end of the trees being used for putting up a traditional structure. The exchange went something like this:

“Why not just use the axe?” I asked.

“Well, the axe isn’t very sharp.” she replied.

I kind of “….”ed at her a bit, and then said, “Well, that’s because it hasn’t been well cared for. But.. this job doesn’t need a particularly sharp axe. It’s the weight of the wedge — the head of the axe — that will do all the work, and the saplings won’t give very much resistance.”

“Well can you just use your knife? It will go faster.” she said, speedily, annoyance in her tone.

“No.” I said, flatly.

“Excuse me?” she asked, an edge of genuine shock in her entitled tone of authority, entirely unearned as it were.

“This knife is not even remotely intended for chopping.” I said.

“I though you had good knives!” she said.

“This knife is scaled with cocobolo wood and is designed for slaughter and field-dressing ritual, not… chopping.”

“So it isn’t sharp?” she asked testily.

“…what? No. It is TOO sharp, for starters. The edge is a razor for making effortless work of thick living tissue, muscle, sinew. The handle is not designed for high-impact implementation. It is an elegant knife for graceful, dignified DEATH, not chopping. That’s like trying to serve soup with a sugar spoon. Different tools for different jobs.”

“You’re just being difficult because you don’t want to work.” she snapped.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” I asked, finally done with the exchange. I stood up and brushed the first-aid supplies off of my lap — I’d been handling wood all day and was covered with the scrapes and splinters of the task — and looked at her sternly. “You’re supposedly up here leading a dozen people in a community ceremony meant, in part, to establish and demonstrate ways of engaging with our world — and our community — with balanced measured natural respect. And yet you stand here in entitled disrespect toward me, my knife, my knife’s maker, the ones who taught my knife’s maker to make knives, and in truth to all blades that have ever come up from earth through hammered fire to human hand to assist in the doing of jobs, as tools and implements designed for purpose. You stand in disrespect of purpose itself, which is to say, you stand against intent, mind, and natural order. Not to mention consent and common sense.”

“…what did you–?” she stammered.

“Why not just use the axe?” I stated, tone shifting back to that which I had originally used on her approach, as if the exchange had not just happened.

“What did…” she trailed off, so I cut in:

“Why don’t you go get yourself some tea and sit in the shade. I’m going to go chop some more wood. With an axe. Which was designed for chopping wood. If you bring me a goat I’ll prepare dinner, too, with a knife designed for that… though I suspect you’ve gone off to town shopping for that at the local co-op.”

And so I set about using an axe — which wasn’t well sharpened, but was far from dulled and blunt — for its purpose, making short work of the labors, and teaching three or four well-seasoned city-people how to hold axes and hatches while doing close-quarters work like chopping stake poles. I explained that a dull axe is more dangerous than a sharp one, because the duller it gets, the less control the wielder has over what it does when it strikes the intended surface. (A dulled axe may “roll” or “glance” or otherwise divert on impact with wood, especially for angled stake-strike work.) I demonstrated an alternative, but more time consuming, method of preparing the pointy ends of the trees with a pair of yard-long clippers. I also drew a picture in the dirt of a knife shape which would be appropriate for chopping work. (I also explained what a machete was, and how to discern when it was or was not appropriate to use one.)

The point here: everything has some purpose and design. Could I have sharpened those trees with the knife? In a bind, yes. It would have damaged the knife, and — unless it was absolutely a survival necessity — rendered disrespect throughout the process. (I would sooner have used shaped stones found nearby to chop the stakes than a knife intended for slaughter.) Some edges are brought to a razor quality, for work which requires that. Others are left more broad and chiseled — still sharp enough to shave, but heavier duty over-all — for more demanding and stressful work.

So many of us go through our lives proverbially attempting to chop firewood with a pocket-knife meant for little more than twine, and wonder why our hands hurt or our knuckles bleed or, indeed, our knives break to pieces. This isn’t really our fault. Our world — or rather, our society, really — teaches us to behave this way. It teaches us not to draw distinctions and not to understand definitions, but to make sure to use popular language like “discernment” in order to demonstrate how savvy we are to those who might be watching, as we go about chopping firewood with a pocket knife.

A lot of us are taught that, contrary to the wisdom of a certain small green resident of a swampy planet in the Outer Rim Territories, it is enough to “try our best”. That in “trying our best” we will be rewarded, congratulated, praised, trophied and bejeweled. Our society so emphatically teaches this that it fails to teach anything else, such as what it might look like to actually “try” a given thing.

For example, if a person were to be told to “go and sharpen this box of pencils” and an hour later found crying in the parking lot with broken number-twos all around them, marks in the pavement clearly showing how they’d set about the undertaking of this task, it would not really be fair to say that they had “tried”. Certainly it had been a trying experience — see what I did there? — and probably a testament to how much they really really really wanted to complete the task assigned. But sharpening pencils on pavement isn’t actually possible. So this was not a “failed attempt”, it was just a bloody failure, and a sad scene at that. Sharpening pencils can be done in a number of ways, none of which involve pavement. Razors, knives, manual and electric and hand-held and wall-mounted sharpeners are all valid options.

Our society has created a culture in which there is no distinction made between “really really really wanting to do something” and actually knowing enough to give it a real try. It has failed to adequately reinforce the fact that knowledge, training, guidance, are all good things. This way we can avoid breaking pencils on the surface of the parking lot and breaking slaughter knives on the surface of a fucking tree.

Distinctions are useful for navigating between multiple things, which are differentiated from one another sometimes in clear bold ways, and other times with subtle nuances. Definitions — of which a given idea may have more than one! — are useful for establishing in what way things are different from one another, and therefore how they stand as distinct (at least within a given context). The process I have just described? That’s an example of what discernment looks like.

Discernment is not merely “good idea, bad idea” for adults. It is not something to be spoken dutifully in flowing robes by a wizened elder when discussing magic or guru selection or the pursuit of enlightenment. It is far more significant in its purposeful application to more foundational things — like sharpening pencils and stake-points for shelters — in order to understand, you know, critically and objectively how things work.

Wanting so hard to do a thing that you’re willing to subject yourself to a series of “trying ordeals” and tribulations is not the same as “trying” to achieve them. The first meaning of the word used is easier, as it requires only struggle and hardship and is equally valid with or without successful achievement of that which you wanted so hard to do; failure is acceptable here. The second meaning — by which we mean actually attempting a thing with an informed aim for successful completion — is more challenging, as it requires that a person know what a completed task might look like, know at least some of the steps likely to bring them to that state, and what tools, accessories or skills might be called upon in the doing. The pursuit of the second meaning — “try” as in meaningfully undertake an attempt — may actually include the experience of the first meaning — “try” as in struggle — because that’s life, and kiddies, sometimes life is hard.

It is always easier to have a trying struggle than it is to try. But one of these gets you somewhere. The other leaves you with a broken knife and a box of splintered number-twos.

And who the fuck wants a box of broken pencils?


  1. Crow Girl says:

    For a more domestic version of the same lesson, I once had someone at a sewing circle take my Hardanger embroidery scissors (without asking, btw) in order to open a seam on a pair of denim jeans. Rather like your knife, those scissors are intended to cut a very few threads very precisely, and using them as she was would have dulled (if not bent) them, requiring me to get them professionally sharpened. This person was, to put it mildly, not a stitcher, so my protest and explanation got a blank look, because of course scissors are scissors, aren’t they? At least she gave them back and took the seam ripper the hostess belatedly offered.That was, needless to say, my last meeting.

    Besides your point about discernment, that was an impressive rant on the nature of courtesy! Courtesy is another of the many things our culture has lost hold of–there’s plenty of superficial friendliness and instant intimacy (for a given value of intimacy, at any rate) to be had, but courtesy is nearly absent. Another post for another time, perhaps.

    • Yes, absolutely! Any chance you’d be interested in writing more about courtesy, for quoting in a future piece, or even just reblogging as a stand-alone? I agree with you absolutely — and I love that you went there with it, as I hadn’t even meant to draw that particular value to the surface in this.

      As for scissors, I’ve been in a nearly identical situation (sans sewing class setting) and the same exchange. Using scissors meant for cutting meat and food items on paper, cardboard, or tape — or cloth — will destroy them, as these are basically cutlery. Using scissors intended for fine and precise cloth or thread cuttings will literally bend the edge of the metal.

      (I wish people had “basic anatomy of a blade” lessons in their lives and understood some of the wee bit important physics and effects of using a knife. What exactly is happening when a blade dulls? What is the difference between a kitchen steel — often called “a sharpening steel” — and an actual sharpener? What different kinds of sharpening are there for blades, and how do they differ? These ideas apply to axes, scissors, knives, clippers…)

      But in a disposable Wal-Mart age, who cares, right? *sigh*

      • Crow Girl says:

        Actually, when I said “Another post for another time,” I meant you ;-), but I’m musing on it. This may possibly be the impetus finally to try blogging for myself–I’ve seen enough online acrimony to be extremely wary of putting myself out there, but that is what delete and block are for, I guess.

  2. Virginia carper says:

    That reminds me of defendants on judge shows, who say, ” I really really wanted to repay the money. I was going to repay the loan”. Of course, the judges ask well why didn’t you?

    My favourite answer is I didn’t want the money, she just forced it on me.

    Sort of doing pretzel thinking so they don’t have to do something they don’t want to.

  3. […] is hard, and the disciplined engagement with various disciplines is harder still. One such tricksy discipline is that of discernment, which […]

  4. […] to draw distinctions between. (All of which I’ve written about in a few other places, regarding definitions, differentiation, distinction, discernment, aka “the […]

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