Weekly Edgework #88 - March 6, 2006

Hammers and Nails

When all you have is hammers, everything looks like a nail. (Abraham Maslow)

I am a small time carpenter of sorts. Some of the happiest and most relaxing moments in my life are spent in my little workshop at the end of the entrance hallway of our house. The shop opens into a garage with double doors, allowing me to increase my workspace for large projects. I admit that some sawdust from my shop filters into the house, even through my double-door retention system. But, thankfully, Ruth has opted for a happy husband instead of a dust-free environment.

Over the years I have acquired a variety of tools, both large and small. My prize tool is a 13-inch planer I bought a decade ago with some inheritance money. Apparently others think it is special as well since it increasingly seems to find a temporary home in the shops of friends and family members. I have three power saws – a skill saw, a table saw and a radial arm saw. Plus an assortment of handsaws – one a Christmas gift from my father shortly after I left home. (He had tried in vain to teach me as a youngster how to make a perfectly squared cut through a four-by-four with a handsaw, like he could. Perhaps he hoped I would continue trying with an expensive handsaw of my own. Sorry, Dad.)

But there are more tools in the workshop. A router, complete with a homemade table. A stationary press drill. A belt sander. A jigsaw. Three drills – two electric and one cordless. A soldering gun. As well you would find an assortment of squares, levels, screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches, brushes, rollers, and bits. And of course I also have a handful of hammers – including a rubber mallet.

While I am quite pleased with my workshop, the point of this article is not to brag about the room and the tools that give me a good deal of pleasure. It is to help us reflect on what life would be like if the only tools we had were hammers. Suppose I went into my workshop one day with the intention of building a bookcase only to find that someone had made off with all my tools except a few hammers. I would, in that case, have a number of options. I could simply give up on the project and go buy a bookcase at Canadian Tire. I could buy, beg, steal or borrow tools to allow me to proceed with my project. Or I could try to build it with the only tools I now have – hammers.

At this point I am trying to imagine what my bookcase would look like if I proceeded with the latter option. I suspect that, with the help of a few nails I might find scattered around the pilfered shop, I would be able to come up with a contraption that would in fact hold up some books. I am less confident that Ruth would allow it into the house as a piece of furniture – even into my private study, which I have informed her is territory I am in charge of.

Okay, let’s get out of my workshop. But even as we do, the image of a carpenter who only has a hammer stays with me. Hammers are useful and even essential in order to build a piece of furniture, but when used in isolation from other tools they tend to turn into blunt instruments better suited for destruction than construction. Why is it then that in our world of relationships we are so often tempted to reach first for a hammer, as though that is the only tool available to us?

Building relationships that are strong and useful requires more than swinging a hammer. I suppose one could argue that a solid blow “where it hurts” can help to set someone straight. Or that bringing down the gavel in decisive judgement can keep us all on the “straight and narrow” way. Or that identifying weak spots in others that shatter with the impact of a sharp criticism will encourage them to shore up their levees against future storms. But I suspect that a more skillful use of the hammer in conjunction with a variety of other tools would go a lot farther toward constructing healthy relationships.

We do well to acquire an assortment of tools and learn how to use them when it comes to getting on with people around us. We might want to keep a hammer or two around to help drive in strategically placed nails that keep things together. (Although, I have found that when you use a good quality glue and a set of clamps you hardly need nails at all.) But we should also invest in a toolkit that includes the ability to listen well, the commitment to show respect, and the pledge to “love our neighbor as ourselves”. And there should be room in the kit for other fruit of the Spirit such as joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Unfortunately, the hammer is the tool of first – and last – resort in too many situations. In some marriages, for example, partners have thrown out most other tools while desperately clinging to their hammers which they keep swinging. It also appears to be the most used tool in the political processes of our country. Remember the last election and the question periods in the House of Commons last summer? It also appears to be the preferred tool in the foreign policy of the powerful nations of this world. Pounding Iraq may seem valiant indeed, but is it proving helpful?

It might be that in some cases people simply don’t know that tools other than hammers are available. I suspect, however, that most of the time people swinging hammers have chosen to throw out, or at least ignore, that vast array of tools available to all of us for building a better world. So with nothing but hammers in hand they keep looking for nails to pound. Let’s try some other tools for a change.