Trusting the Wisdom of Our Hands

by Kim   |   September 29, 2009

When was the last time you did handiwork?

By that I mean, not pressing keys at a keyboard or cash register. I mean work you do with your hands that leaves the impression of that hand in some way. Something hand-woven, hand-carved, hand-painted. For many of us in this technological society, the whole hand is dominated by the fingertips (well-muscled from typing) or the thumbs (sore from chronic Blackberrying). Even for people who work in factories or assemble fast food, the human element--the hands that do the work--is meant to be excluded, rather than valued. This leaves many hands hungry, hungry for meaningful work. Think of all the advertisements you've seen recently, and consider which sense they appeal to: sight, sound, taste, and smell all get much more attention than the sense of touch. Hands are neglected, amnesiac: many have forgotten what it is like to dig in the dirt or thread a needle.

We've come to think of the homemade and handmade as having some kind of mystique: as if only our grandmothers or a special class of craftsy people can mend a hem or can some jam. Our hands have an inferiority complex. In reality, there is no exclusive society that allows in only the dextrous: those of us who are rather clumsy can still knead dough, top-and-tail beans, and weed a garden.

If some hands are hungry for work and don't even realize it, others are working unseen.

A few years ago, when the "Day without Mexicans" concept first got going, I remember seeing a photograph of hundreds of workers at a rally. It was an unusual shot because it didn't really capture anyone's face; everyone in the photo had their hands raised, a sea of hands meant to represent the people who build so many of our houses, cook so many of our meals, and play an important part in many other sectors of our economy. For all that a large percentage of Americans are employed in service-related industries, somebody, somewhere is still making stuff, either with their hands, or in cooperation with machines. For every hand-crafted hat bought on Etsy, a thousand are churned out in sweatshops--also by humans, but with none of the character or durability of hand-knitted items.

Craftsmanship is having a resurgence, but we have to be willing to pay for it, to learn it ourselves, to practice it as a lifestyle. We have to stop looking at life from the sidelines, as if our hands are tied behind our backs. Such a lifestyle tends to bring people together into groups of handy people, like sewing bees and barn-raisings. Our hands are capable of cooking a better meal, writing a more heartfelt holiday card, and growing a greener garden than you'd ever believe possible...if we only trust them enough to try.