Woodworking Lessons in Empathy
It’s no wonder to me that Jesus was a woodworker. It may be been the way God arranged things so that Jesus while growing, was exposed to what happens in the natural world. Sometimes the workbench is our best teacher and sometimes the coporeal leads you back to the divine.
Case in point — how about empathy? Feeling the same way. There is no mystery how one gets there. You have to go through the same things if you are to understand that you are not so different from your fellow man. You take a journey in his shoes.
There is that story in the Bible where Jesus cautions about the difficulties involved with cobbling something old onto something new. It was his statement about new wine in old wineskins. The new wine will burst the old wineskins. They have been shaped by different forces at different times and will therefore not easily mix. It’s not that much different for a piece of wood. Ask any reno expert and they will tell you it is much easier to tear everything down and start from the beginning, than to add onto an existing structure and try to harmonize and match everything.
I had a small school desk my daughter wanted to use for university. She had found it on the curb in the rain, and the top was warped and ruined. I offered to make a new top from oak, and therein the fun began. It’s the problem of matching new and old just like Jesus said. Things that have not been subject to the same forces. In taking the desk apart, I discovered right off that the woods were not the same. There appeared to be chestnut, a strong-grained wood that could be in times past, a cheap substitute for oak. There was also butternut, another oak stand-in, for those pieces that did not require much strength. Trying to match the finish on different woods, a problem. It is the reason why woodworkers will insist on the same species, often pushing to get pieces of wood all harvested from the same tree. They will react the same way when you put a finish on them.
And so it was that I made a new oak top, and tried variously to match the colour with stain, and with wood dyes, even glaze coats dry-bushed on to deepen the colour. All to no avail. There was one central problem. The new piece of oak had not undergone the same processes of duress that the old pieces had. You run into it time and again in trying to refinish an antique.
There is really only one solution in the end. You will have to strip it with caustic chemicals and abrade the wood. This drives old finish into the pores, burnishes and polishes the surface, so that it begins to mimic the patina that happens naturally on wood with age and experience. There is no way around it. The forces of duress applied, equalize the playing field. Stripping and resanding the surface made it easier to match colour the second time around. There is no faking experience.
New wine in old wineskins will not work. Neither will new wood cobbled onto old unless you have done something purposely that allows for a kind of empathy. You must beat up new wood so that it will look and feel like the old. Empathetic people… they have shared those forces of duress which made them feel for their fellow man. It’s what separates a“slack-tivist” from the real deal.
The take-away is that hard experience can have beneficial effects. It makes you feel for others who are likewise affliced. Saint Paul weighs in on this, in Second Corinthians 1:3-4. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
You will know an empathetic person when you meet one. Jesus doing battle with an unruly piece of wood was a good rehearsal for working with human beings. Lessons in woodworking… they are uncannily religious at times. Revelations at the work bench, where one will see everyday signs and wonders if one has but the eyes to see.