The Cynic and the Boatbuilder, Revisited


I would like to share with my readers part of a letter I received from Samuel Brett (who has given me permission to share this.) The article he references, The Cynic and the Boatbuilder, explores the value of living a life devoted to something beautiful, even if it seems senseless in the face of climate change and so on. In this case, it is the preservation of the ancient craft of Nordic-Irish boatbuilding. The cynic says, “That’s all very nice, but what good does it do in the face of The Crisis?" Here is Samuel’s letter.

"I recently was linked via Facebook by a friend in the US to an article you wrote called 'The Cynic and the boatbuilder' and was moved to tears by the article for a number of reasons, the first being that... I am the boatbuilder who accosted you that spring morning on the Skeppsholmen boardwalk in Stockholm.

Secondly I happened (by some yet shrouded synchronicity) to read the article on the very day that I buried my father and was in deep personal emotional dismay.

I cried because for such a brief encounter which seemed so fleeting you described most beautifully eloquently my motivations my passion and my emphatic convictions as I myself might describe them. Sometimes I feel like nobody (including often myself) understands what I am doing, sometimes I feel I am both the cynic AND the boatbuilder, the external confirmation in the article was deeply moving.

With my father's passing my thoughtful soul to solitude retired and with it the introspection on the role we play in each other's lives as a father inspires a son turn and turn about. How we inspire one another and empower the latent hero within. It is empowering to think that I inspired you, considering the inspiration you yourself have kindled in me. I am truly honored by that."

It is little moments like this that motivate me way more than any conventional “success metric” ever could. People sometimes ask me whom my heroes are, whom I admire the most. I have to say, I admire people like the boatbuilders more than the people who take a big public role in environmental and social justice movements. Of course, I celebrate their work too, but they don’t need quite the level of faith that is required to devote one’s life to senseless acts of beauty. The logic we have grown up in tells the visible change activists, “You are having a big impact - at least compared to the anonymous, invisible lives of most people.” They can trace a thread of cause and effect from their work on, say, the carbon disinvestment issue, to a livable future on planet Earth. They can offer their mind validation in the form of reasons. They can justify themselves.

It is different for the boatbuilders, for the people seeking to revive dying languages, for the restorer of antique guitars, and really for most of the world’s artists and musicians. Even if they could cobble together a justification for their work that claims that it is in fact important for the planet, they know full well that that isn’t why they are doing it. No one can honestly say, “I added up the positive and negative effects and decided the most helpful use of my gifts is to build boats, and that’s why I’m doing it.” We would recognize that as self-justifying nonsense. No, these people cannot rely on “I’m doing a great and important thing in the world” to sustain them in work that probably also has little financial or social validation either. That is why I admire them - for the inner resources that sustain them when neither money nor ideology nor social status can.

In an alternative matrix of cause and effect, it is these people, the artists and the caregivers, who are holding together the fabric of the world. Their importance becomes visible only with time, and usually only in glimpses that hint of deep veins of karma underneath. My dear reader, can you remember a time when, by chance, you discovered that some random act of kindness, generosity, or beauty that you committed years ago touched someone’s life? And you realized in that moment that every act bears fruit.

That is what Samuel’s letter did for me. It pierced my conditioning and helped me understand that I don’t have to worry about how many people I reach, what my most effective strategy should be, or how I can justify my choices. I can do just what Samuel and so many like him do: devote my gifts to whatever is beautiful to me. Maybe the results will seem big and important to my rational mind - I don’t mean to dismiss the Big Things either - but maybe the results will only enliven my heart. Maybe no one will ever find out about them. Maybe I won’t even find out about them.

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