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I was hanging a painting the other day when it occurred to me that I am a tool. Perhaps you’ve had your suspicions about this, but I can assure you it’s not for the reasons you think.
“If I Had a Hammer” is a folk song I’ve always associated with Joan Baez. I know lots of other people sing it and other folks wrote it, but to me it’s always only been Joan.
The song is about peace and harmony, but you might not pick that up If you studied the lyrics like I did. It talks a lot about hammering justice and freedom and love between brothers and sisters all over the land. And if that wasn’t enough, she’s hammering out danger and warnings all day long, too. Pretty ambitious if you ask me. Too ambitious, to tell you the truth.
As I drove the nails into the wall, I imagined the reactions I’d get from my neighbors—and the police—when I explained why I chose 3am to do my home improvement projects. You don’t understand, I’d say, my tools at the ready, I’m hammering for justice… all over this apartment.
I kept thinking of Joan and how fiercely committed she’d been in her fight for human rights and peace. I thought about all the great things she was going to do with her hammer where all I did that day was hang a crooked picture. Look at her, I said. She’s been hammering away for decades—warnings, love, freedom, justice, danger, everything. And what have I done? I wondered. I looked at the tool in my hand and considered the power I’d possibly been squandering. Just how much good could wield in the world if only I put my mind and metaphorical hammer to work? I felt a surge of respect for Joan’s fervor and for that of everyone who ever worked for worthy causes like she did.
I know this woman named Janet. Janet is a natural born healer. She’s the type of person people share their private feelings with; they trust her with their stories and she listens deeply to every one—but not without feeling ambivalent about it sometimes. Kriste, she said, strangers seek me out and they tell me things. Isn’t that the weirdest thing? Janet paused as though waiting for a scripted reply. I could tell that mine wasn’t what she expected.
No, I said. I don’t think it’s weird at all. I was still turning over the hammers of peace thing in my head, but the exchange with Janet helped me see it all differently. For one thing, I could easily see why people drew to her: she was extremely compassionate, she was patient by nature, and she was kind. Janet also happened to be a nurse.
Whether people knew it consciously or not, they felt safe around her, and that is a healing by pretty much any standard. I suggested that Janet was giving a gift to those people just by letting them share their stories with her. Don’t get me wrong, Janet’s no martyr; she doesn’t go looking for people to save. And she knows what it means to have healthy boundaries. As she explained it to me, Janet considers it a privilege to be of service in that way. She takes pleasure knowing that—by being herself and doing what comes naturally to her—she’s made a positive impact in the lives of others.
I recognized lots of similar moments in my own life when people showed up in similar ways for me: the copy shop attendant who read the stress on my face, wished me a great day, and didn’t charge me a dime, the dancer with the zebra jumpsuit and free hugs in the public square, neighbors bearing cookies, the smiling cashier who remembered my name, to name but a few. All of them made a choice to let themselves be used in little ways by something greater than they were in the moment. A great thinker once said, Miracles come in moments. Be ready and willing. Those people I mentioned were willing, just as Janet was—and Joan with her hammer and rigorous work ethic.
What moments come to mind where people have shown up like this for you? Better yet, in what ways have you let yourself be this kind of tool?
I believe the choices we make at any given moment can serve as a response to our higher guidance, whether it’s in the affirmative or not. Like Dylan said, You gotta serve somebody. When I look at my life in this way, as a series of choices and opportunities to be of service or not, it requires me to place an awareness on everything I do. It makes me deeply responsible for my actions, or lack thereof, and it becomes a spiritual practice of mindfulness in the moment. Suddenly, every blow of my hammer takes on new meaning.
I’m not the best at wielding real life hammers, but I tend to stick with it until the work is done. But the metaphorical hammer stuff, this letting myself be used in service to others, well, that’s a different kind of DIY and it often gets messy. I might not stay up late hammering out justice and freedom and warnings all over the place, but I’m doing my best to lean into higher hands when I can; I’m willing to be the tool. And, for now, that’s plenty good enough for me.
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