Many have the opinion that philosophy is a useless activity devoid of practical significance. These folks believe that “philosophy bakes no bread.” Here I want to suggest why this belief is mistaken. Philosophical insights can be found in everyday activities like mowing the grass, arguing with a spouse, pedaling a bike, watching baseball or the UFC and even baking bread. Enlightenment, if it exists, happens when we are fully engaged and present in the activities we do. Buddhists refer to this position as “kitchen sink wisdom.” This means that the answers to the deepest mysteries (if they are deep at all) are not found in a self-help book but are rather right in front of you. It all depends on a shift in perspective.
Take a home renovation project for example. For the past three months (depending on who is counting), I have been sanding the old staircase of our old house. I could, following thinkers like Camus and Nagel, conclude that I am ultimately engaging in an absurd activity; much like the Greek hero Sisyphus who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill, only to watch it come down again and again for eternity. Why absurd you ask? And what does philosophy have to do with sanding a staircase? More than meets the sandpaper, so to speak!
The staircase is more than a hundred years old. It is well built and a testament to the quality of the work done at the time. Yet, a century ago, someone was doing exactly what I am doing now-sanding wood. I do not know if they were thinking of Sisyphus. The sanded wood was stained with a deep walnut hue. Fifty years later, the wood was sanded yet again and then painted a modern ivory. The people who lived in the house before us stripped the paint and then sanded the wood again staining it American colonial. Tired of the stained wooden look, I found myself sanding out the stain to reapply a postmodern ivory, which is really a medieval white.
As Camus might ask, ‘What is the point of all this repetitious effort?” Instead of seeing sanding as something that wears you down, cramps your fingers and clogs your lungs with dust, one might look at the grain and learn patience, discover the value of process and find hidden treasures.
While sanding, I found a penny from the 1900’s that the first owner had hidden in the staircase. Apparently, he was also a philosopher with a sense of humor. Here was a gift from the past to reward my strenuous effort. I let my own gift hidden in a crevice within the staircase. I paid the penny forward and attached it to a note, a time capsule, a wisdom bubble, that read, “ How meaningful is your life, if you are doing the same thing I did, fifty years ago?” One would hope that in what we do, we recognize for the first time, what we have been unable to see. This is where joy and wisdom open, never to depart; at least, not until the next project.