How Do Ownership and Community Go Together?

by Ian Barth

Editor: This is an article from the Voices Blog by the Bruderhof members, an intentional Christian Community. It is very pertinent to how we strive to live out our Covenant. Published with permission.

How do ownership and community go together? It’s an interesting thing; none of us who are members of the Bruderhof “owns” anything, and yet ownership, taking pride in the state of one’s house, or picnic area, or sewing machine, is actually crucial for healthy community. Especially with tools and equipment the cliché holds true that something owned by everyone is owned by no one and will be treated accordingly. Someone needs to be willing to pick up the trash, or wash off the mower, or put all the fencing tools away even if they didn’t make the mess themselves. Someone needs to give a devastating dressing down to the fellow who left the hedge trimmer out in the rain or you can be sure he will do it again next time.

The idea of ownership is something Olivia and I have been trying to teach our kids. Of course at one level they get the whole idea of private ownership really well, and with that the thrill of taking something that belongs to someone else; it’s a button that works every time you push it. Learning ownership in the sense I have described above is altogether more of a challenge. For our kids at least it comes down to teaching them to be proud to look after something properly.

Even though he is not old enough to use one, I’ve been teaching my teenage son how to sharpen a chainsaw; it’s just in the nature of things that the saws are put away dirty and dull more often than not. Besides, it’s a skill to be proud of. A well sharpened saw will pull its own way through the wood, shooting back a spray of clean, square chips. A dull saw just sits in the groove, gets hot and whines; the operator usually does too. (Of course my son is not allowed to use the chain saw. I use the chain saw. I don’t whine either.)

Sharpening a saw can be a reflective experience: the silence of the workshop, the squeak of the vice as the bar is clamped, the rasp of the round file eating each tooth back and back. A saw tooth is made of mild steel with a hard chromium plating. If the file is new it bites in hard, the edge of the tooth dissolving into a tiny shower of filings that catch the light. The task requires some concentration but not much thought; each stroke is repeated hundreds of times, over and over. Makes me think of that great Carl Sandburg poem, “Psalm of Those Who Go Forth Before Daylight.”

I used to try to file each tooth down exactly the same amount, using the same number of strokes on each tooth, to make sure the saw would cut evenly. Many chain manufacturers still recommend this approach. In the last few years though, I’ve learned a different method: each tooth is filed until it is sharp, then adjusted to cut to the correct depth. It means that even if a few teeth get knackered and have to be filed right down, the undamaged teeth can be left long and the saw will still cut like a honey. I like the analogy: individualism with a common purpose, an answer to socialism.

I really have no idea what kind of work my son will end up doing; who knows if like me he will take a perverse delight in tipping over large trees and annoying people. I suspect he will be at some pains to chart his own course. I do hope though that wherever he ends up in a few years he is able to point to his room, or his desk, or his jobsite with pride, saying, “That’s mine.”