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The Point


What’s the point? It’s what’s left when you take everything else away. that’s the point.

Yesterday I wrote about appreciation. Today I want to add a counterbalance.

There’s a big problem with everything being interesting. I suffer from it a lot. A lack of discrimination. My big problem is being too interested in everything. There simply isn’t enough time. I hoard everything and I end up scattered. How to decide what to focus on?

The art of knapping is knowing what to throw away and what to keep. Done just right it creates something useful, something meaningful, something with a point.

Discarding things is neither profligate or neglectful. In order to know what to take away it’s important to study the grain of the material, understand its structure, the lines of shearing, the balance of the stresses. You have to love something to know where to strike it.

Then, when you know where the point is, you can use it to do something useful. A knife can cut, a pencil can draw, an arrow, once perfectly whittled by the fletcher, can itself be thrown away in order to pierce the target.

That great slinger ‘David’ stood trapped by the weight of an eroding block of marble in a cathedral yard for many years, before Michelangelo came along and dared to release him. Who misses what was lost?

A stone might crack the wrong way and become useless. How much more delicate is one’s own life.

Some people think becoming a hermit is extraordinary and remarkable. For me it’s not misanthropic nor cowardly nor brave. It’s simply the necessary removal of distraction. I’m an ill disciplined person compared to most. I can’t keep New Year’s resolutions. I can’t concentrate in an office. I have many friends who are much more focused and effective than I am. They would have no need for something like this. But I need all the help I can get.

The Buddha tells a story of a man who has been wounded by a poison arrow. Doctors are called but the man says he will not have the arrow removed until he learns whether it was shot by a nobleman or a warrior or a farmer, whether he was tall or short or medium, fair or dark, from near or far, whether the bow was a longbow or a crossbow, the kind of bowstring, the kind of shaft, the kind of tip… the feathers… the composition of the poison, etc., etc.

That man would die, says the Buddha, without ever having learned all these things.

The fact is there is suffering now. It must be addressed immediately.

As T.S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets, ‘Time is no healer: the patient is no longer here’.
Are we not distracted if we go round carefully collecting all the slings and arrows to prove the outrageousness of Fortune?

In Buddhist cosmology heaven is a very unfortunate place to arrive. Where there is no immediate perception of suffering there is no urgency, no impetus to action. Only when faced with dire necessity – like an arrow in the ribs – will we act. And even then we may be distracted and die before we help ourselves.

Looking around now at the degradation of all living systems, it seems to me that perhaps it’s time to act. Is there any doubt that humanity needs to be knapped? We could think of the whittling away of cars, packaging, food miles, unnecessary consumption and so on. But austerity can be unattractive. Let’s rather think of what may be revealed. The point.

Dowry bow

Here’s a bow without an arrow. It might have been presented once somewhere in the Congo basin along with a quivering bride as a dowry. You could probably find half a dozen of them now gathering dust in some half-stocked central African airport souvenir shop.

There are a matter of days left now before the end of a four week stay of execution that has temporarily protected a few surviving families of gorillas, chimpanzees, mandrills and elephants in that Congo basin. The Cameroonian government, in desperate need of money, will sell off another few hundred thousand hectares of rainforest to a logging company unless a competitive alternative scheme can be proposed. Whose is that forest to destroy?

Thirty days. The clock started ticking on June 18th. Bulldozers and chainsaws are standing by, idling. Does that focus the mind?

Perhaps a letter could be fired off. It’s only one tiny little thing. But that’s the point.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Nina from Brittany permalink
    12/07/2009 9:25 pm

    Dear Hermit,

    I think I see what you mean by needing necessity to get anything done (I guess the answer would be to set myself some ultimatums- ultimati?).

    I have a big list of things I want to do, and yet the days go by and I achieve virtually nothing. I know I should be doing SOMETHING, but the fact is I’m not. I’m not doing a single one of those things I want to do, or rather want to have done.

    Perhaps that’s it. We don’t really want to act, to do, just to have those things in our past. Yeah, I ran a marathon. I did charity work. Etc etc… Is that all we really want, achievement to brag and feel good about. Why don’t I actively want to DO anything?

  2. Cat permalink
    13/07/2009 10:00 am

    Hermit (& Nina)

    I am in total agreement. I feel consistently bored in my personal life because i just can’t be ‘bothered’ to do anything – I have completely lost any focus I once had and now feel scattered: hoarding every possible opportunity as a potential activity, but then really, not doing anything at all. Except maybe procrastinating.

    The bow to me signifies the fruit of someone’s labour – a physical reminder that things can be achieved and created from very little: if one is focused. Yes, there may be many others like this one – but perhaps not one made by that specific individual who crafted this bow and decorated it with such dedication: whether out of necessity or desire. Either way, it is a unique object to me because it ties us to the individuality of the creator, regardless of whether or not it is an imitation. It is possibly made from the very resources which are currently being wiped out on a mass scale – another reminder of that which could be lost but which will indurably remain, somehow.

    To close this comment, may I just say that I have always wanted to learn the fascinating skill of flint knapping. And, of course, I haven’t as yet. But I’ve come close…closer than some maybe. It’s another one of those potential opportunities I’m banking on presenting itself in the future…

  3. Stephen Welsh permalink
    13/07/2009 11:04 am


    This bow is part of the Simon Archery collection at the Manchester Museum. The collection is rather special as it is one of the most comprehensive collections of bows and arrows anywhere in the world, from Japanese samurai to British bowmen.

    Bows and arrows are almost immediately recognised by people the world over. As objects they have changed the course of world history on more than one occassion and always have the potential to do so in the future. They have permeated our cultural consciousness in so many ways, think of certain cider adverts, or the clip on a particular type of pen, or even the ubiquitous Cupid printed on thousands of Valentines cards each year! Bows and arrows are part of myth, fashion, movies, sport, war, hunting, history and in this case ritual.

    This bow highlights the cultural intimacy and familiarity with the bow perfectly. It had a role to play in one the most important rituals any human will every take part in, marriage. It signifies the ability to provide, alluding to hunting, in a less allegorical way then other wedding ceremonies. This bow definately had more of an impact than that of Cupid!

    As part of the universal family of bows this one needs to remain nestled amongst its siblings in the Simon Archery collection. It reminds us that way before globalisation humans were using similar tools and technology, and that each culture which used them did so in a particular way.

    Stephen Terence Welsh
    Curator of Living Cultures
    The Manchester Museum

  4. 14/07/2009 1:11 pm

    The bow seems to be decorated with cowrie shells, which are valuable in Africa. It might indeed have been part of a dowry.

  5. 23/07/2009 4:40 pm

    An arrowsmith is a maker of metal arrowheads. An arrow would be whittled by a fletcher who makes arrows and fletches (fixes the feathers) to it.

    The bride’s dowry bow is from east Africa – possibly Kenya. It is decorated with cowrie shells which represent a bride’s dowry and are also a fertility symbol. At the top of the bow is a cluster of dyed ostrich feathers. The feathers and monkey skin provide for good luck and good health.

    Wendy Hodkinson
    Hon. Curator of Archery
    The Manchester Museum

    • 24/07/2009 12:04 pm

      I must have misheard ‘Congo’ for ‘Kenya’. Sorry.
      There goes all my research down the drain.
      Let’s let the loggers chop down the Ngoyla Mintom then.
      (Did anyone write to them?)

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