The Art of Passing on Wonts
The true measure of our legacy is the depth of our gratitude, not the shimmer of our moral and technical excellence.
When I walk from my home to my workplace, or to the local public library, I often discover myself to be whistling or rhythmically snapping my fingers. I walk a certain way: my feet face so, my arms swing thus; there is a slight hop in my step. A day came when I recognized that I walk the way my father does.
There is no doubt that between my father and me, example has been stronger than precept.
In my early teens I rejected wholesale the religious, political, and ethnic legacy I received from him, and as we recovered respect and affection for each other in the years since the birth of my children, the things on which we have arrived at overt agreement appear to me mostly to be gains I have made obliquely, from sources other than my family, the church of my childhood, or the literature in my birth language.
And yet: I not only walk like my father, but I work like my father, pursue health and physical fitness in a manner much like my father, make lists like my father, order the hours of my days much like my father does. Like my father, I value civic duty and hard work, education and frugality. Like my father, I seek to help sustain the public order and strive to encourage enterprise.
Most of the legacy of habit and values I have received from my father I assimilated tacitly, and it is only in recent years that I have become aware of the extent to which who-I-am is inherited from the home in which I was raised. It seems to me that we leave such traces in the character of all with whom we live, willy-nilly, much of it unintentionally and obscurely, and only some small fraction as the result of clear intent, leaving obvious evidence.
In his 2010 poem, "The Things," Donald Hall writes:
When I walk in my house I see pictures,
bought long ago, framed and hanging
— de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry
that I've cherished and stared at for years,
yet my eyes keep returning to the masters
of the trivial — a white stone perfectly
round, tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,
a broken great-grandmother's rocker,
a dead dog's toy — valueless, unforget table
detritus that my children will throw away
as I did my mother's souvenirs of trips
with my dead father, Kodaks of kittens,
and bundles of cards from her mother Kate.
Our lives are like houses filled with an odd collection of inheritances—legacies left to us by those who went before us, and that may or may not hold meaning for, or bear fruit in, the lives of those who come after us.
We each bequeath a legacy, willy-nilly. The question is then not if we will leave a legacy, but how we will leave our legacy, and for what good or ill. It seems to me that in leaving our own legacy, we must first test the pulse of the legacy we receive, to see if there is yet life in it; next we must grow fluent in both then and now; then we may begin to open up, freshly, the possibilities for the now that come to us gift-wrapped in the things and practices of then . . . but have their deeper origin in the very inscape of things.
Test for a pulse.
I never lived in a house with Calvin Seerveld or Richard Mouw, never sat in their classrooms, and I've only heard each of them lecture academically or exhort in a church perhaps a handful of times. And yet, through their writing, our correspondence, and our conversations over the years, these two philosophers have decisively shaped the map of the world by which I navigate, the hope for the future by which I am sustained, and the criteria by which I evaluate my work and play, worship and teaching. (For a first glimpse of the reasons for my grateful indebtedness, I recommend to you Seerveld's Rainbows for the Fallen World and Mouw's When the Kings Come Marching In.)
On the topic of this article—the cultivation of legacies—my thinking has been oriented by Calvin Seerveld's Philosophia Reformata article "Footprints in the snow." (The article first appeared in Philosophia Reformata (1991, 56(1), 1-34) and is forthcoming in a Dordt College Press volume of Seerveld's collected articles, edited by John Kok; a version of the article also appeared at the beginning of this issue of Comment).
Seerveld writes that it is part of the human condition to be "traditioned." We live our lives best as custodians—much of who we are, what we do, and what we have are blessings and curses received from preceding generations, that we in turn hand on—worn in or worn out—to the generations that follow. Our actions take place in the inter-generational context of traditions. The legacy we bequeath is rooted in the legacy we receive.
In "Footprints," Seerveld defines "tradition" as "the structured transaction of passing on wonts from practiced to inexperienced human hands." (The Oxford English Dictionary defines a "wont" as "one's customary behaviour in a particular situation.")
Insofar as the legacy we leave can be a matter of intent, we bear a responsibility to practice the art of traditioning—the art of passing on wonts from one generation to another.
As we consider the wonts danced into our hands by a preceding generation, we must ask ourselves if the legacy we have received can be fruitful, not just for ourselves, but also for the generation into whose hands we will dance these wants. "Does the human traditioning at hand in my life embody the nitty-gritty peace and wisdom to open up whatever activities are at stake for refined service in God's world?" is how Seerveld phrases this great question. Is there life left in the legacy we have received? If yes, then we can with joy and gratitude settle in, make ourselves at home in our inherited tradition, and begin to look at what needs tender care, renovation, or perhaps even to be reformed in what we will be passing along. If no, then we must begin looking around for a tradition other than what we inherited into which we might be adopted.
Grow fluent in both then and now.
A skillful "traditioner" needs to be comfortably familiar with both the legacy inherited from the previous generation and the new cultural context within which that legacy is to be made freshly serviceable. Slavish repetition of the way things have always been done will soon lose the trust of those whom the tradition is to serve. The skillful traditioner must discern what continues to be meaningful and culturally promising in the tradition, and must re-imagine that contribution into the new situation. "Traditioning an inheritance is normative," writes Seerveld, "if the traditioning act gentles"—I love Seerveld's verb here, gentles—" the (reliable) wont into the inexperienced generation's hands so they do justice to its original obedience (granted it was relatively obedient) and find new avenues for its service . . . Traditioning goes wrong if the inherited wont is passed on dead, dead-to-the-world without the breath of passionate love infusing its original contribution."
A falling in love is necessary if we are to tradition well. We must discover a love for and a vocation in the service of the inheritance we receive from then and the new setting of the now into which we gentle that inheritance. It is only as I discovered that I loved justice that I could begin to see what political practices and traditions I might begin to live into.
The cultivation of a legacy requires the cultivation of expertise. From the falling in love that helps us find our calling, we mature towards the cultivation of skill in those areas of life to which we are called. When our sense of calling ignites a passion in our hearts—and here I follow what Daniel Coyle writes in The Talent Code—and we find a skillful teacher or coach in the craft to which we are called, and we find a community of people who care so passionately about the set of practices involved in this craft that they will challenge us towards deep learning, then we have the prospect of our practice—our ten thousand hours of practice, as Anders Ericsson (and his popular interpreter, Malcolm Gladwell) suggests— turning into true expertise.
Open up the inscape of things to fresh possibilities.
As we fall in love with our life's work and devote our ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to the acquisition of expertise in our craft, we discover that the passing on of wonts is an art.
The constellation of legacies we receive in the diverse aspects of our lives provides us— along with the body chemistry, metabolism, and temperamental disposition peculiar to our selves, and the weave of climate, landscape, and living things within which we are placed—with the materials out of which we fashion our lives, with the increase upon which we may gift or curse our inheritors.
For our legacy to be gift, not a curse, we must learn to work along the grain of things, learn to nurture the particular, learn to weave towards coherence rather than lapse into fragmentation or settle for mere bricolage.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins described the purpose of his art as articulating the resonance between his awareness of his own inner given self and his careful observation of the patterned character of things—their inscape, as he called it. To leave a legacy we must discover the inscape of the kinds of things we are called to work and tend, and then devote ourselves to working along the created grain of those things, rather than cutting across it or ignoring it.
The philosopher Richard Mouw has written about the need for chicken farmers to allow roosters to strut their stuff—recognizing and nurturing what it means for a chicken to be a chicken in God's good world. My friends Tim and Katie Wiens are dedicating their lives to understanding how children learn in schools— Katie in particular attending to the way in which boys and girls uniquely learn, given the gendered features of brain development, and helping teachers think about how learning can be accomplished when taking into account these given patterns of personal development. The 19th century statesman Abraham Kuyper introduced a recognition of sphere sovereignty, or dispersed authority, into Dutch politics, leaving a legacy in which the Dutch state has taken care for generations to recognize and protect the room of various societal relationships— family, school, faith community, businesses, labour organizations, and so forth—to flourish on their distinctive ways.
Closer yet than attending to the inscape of the kinds of things we work and tend is the attention we learn to give to the particular things. To leave a legacy we must not only attend to things according to their kinds, but also to their flourishing as individuals. The horse or dog whisperer recognizes that while all horses and all dogs can flourish given certain conditions, each horse and each dog requires recognition of its individual traits, and needs to be handled so that its individuality is turned to good rather than ill. The business leader and writer Max De Pree celebrates in his books the humanizing of work—including recognizing the unique giftedness and potential contribution of each person in a work community: the skillful manager of a business not only knows people-on-average, but knows each of the persons who make up the work crew, and how to give them room to be more fully human, more fully themselves, in service of the common object for which the business exists. Similarly, chief executives of both businesses and non-profit organizations recognize that their outfits must serve a unique niche in a unique way if they are to distinguish themselves from all the other similar businesses or non-profits out there—in this way winning the support of customers and investors or beneficiaries and donors who recognize that something special is afoot.
But while such differentiation and individuation (and here I must recognize the legacy of the philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, from whose philosophy of culture I am learning what trends towards progress in traditions)— working along the created grain of the kinds of things we are called to tend, nurturing the individual potential of things and people and organizations— is necessary for the leaving of a
legacy, they come with the potential of bringing about fragmentation to our societies and our own lives. We must also work toward integration— the weaving together of our efforts into meaningful coherence with the cultural efforts of our neighbours.
This is perhaps the greatest challenge for us as we seek to leave a legacy. It is easy to seek the meaning of our lives in our work itself, or in the things or people or communities we are called to help shape and care for. But the coherence and meaning of created reality is not to be found in the things themselves, as Augustine of Hippo discovered. Steven Garber wrote in The Fabric of Faithfulness of the human desire for both truth and coherence, and contributing towards such coherence is a necessary part of our legacies. How do I build a business that makes a real contribution as a business, but that also leaves room for my co-workers' family lives to flourish? How do I farm in such a way that I have enough of an income to sustain my own family, while contributing to the health of both those who eat the food I produce and the land on which I produce it? How do I write poetry that in its very rhythms and metaphors enrich the language in which I write, while accounting for both the wonder and the heartbreak of human life?
To unfold the meaning of things, also in our work, demands of us more than an attention to the particular, or even to things according to their kinds—it also demands of us attention to how all things hold together meaningfully, and how we can contribute towards such coherence in our own lives, our neighbourhoods, our societies, and around this ever-more-fragmenting, ever-more-connecting globe.
The true measure of our legacy is the depth of gratitude out of which we live, not the shimmer of our moral and technical excellence.
An invitation to leave a legacy can easily be misread as a call to cultural heroism, to an ethic of excellence, to an aesthetic poiesis of meaning in an otherwise cruel and empty universe. But the pursuit of excellence will kill you. That is, we as human beings are incapable of adequately living up to any standard of excellence on our own, without, in the effort, killing the whole or some part of our selves, and doing severe damage to the people and other creatures within our spheres of influence. The unfettered pursuit of excellence is braggadocio, at best resulting in tragedy.
Instead, I want to suggest, a true legacy grows out of recognition of the giftedness of life—recognition that we live in a cosmos created in blessing and recovered for goodness by grace. The appropriate ethic for such a world is an ethic of gratitude: recognizing that all things are created according to their kinds, all things have their unique individuality, and all things hold together meaningfully, in the love of God. With such an ethic, leaving a legacy is not an Ozymandian exercise in selfglorification, but the gentle giving away of gifts into hearts that will, in turn, become stewards of gratitude, tenders and caretakers of a world loved by God.Subscribe