Today, I wanted to write about a new word I recently learned that captures so much of what I have gone through this past year, and what I try to unearth and explore in this newsletter: poiesis.
Poiesis is an Ancient Greek term that can be defined as “the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before.” Philosopher Martin Heidegger referred to poiesis as a ‘bringing-forth’ — “the blooming of the blossom, the coming-out of a butterfly from a cocoon, the plummeting of a waterfall when the snow begins to melt.”
How lovely are those images? That one ephemeral moment of transformation. The sacred pause between the before and the after.
In working to learn more about the word, I read about a book published in 2011, called All Things Shining, which also refers to and explores poiesis. The book is about rediscovering meaning in a secular age (aka EXTREMELY MY JAM), and according to a New York Times review, the authors “provide a compressed narrative of changes in Western understanding of human existence over the course of nearly three millenniums, and argue that reading great works of literature allows us to rediscover the reverence, gratitude and amazement that were available in Homeric times. These qualities, they believe, can be cultivated to provide a bulwark against the nihilism they rightly view as threatening our ability to lead meaningful lives in the 21st century. ‘The gods have not withdrawn or abandoned us,’ they conclude. ‘We have kicked them out.’”
So what is one way to invite the “gods” — or, in my view, a sense of wonder and awe of living in a world that we know we cannot truly understand or ever fully grasp — back into our lives? The book’s authors offer up this, and allow me a bit of an excerpt:
Until about a hundred years ago, the cultivating and nurturing practices of poiesis organized a central way things mattered. The poietic style manifested itself, among other places, in the craftsman’s skills for bringing things out at their best… Learning a skill is learning to see the world differently. The skilled surgeon, for example, sees something more than a broken and bloody leg; he sees a particular kind of break, one that requires this precise surgical technique to fix it. Likewise, we hear people say that the successful running back has “great vision,” the point guard has extraordinary “court sense.” In each case this means that the person’s skill at surgery or running or passing allows them to see meaningful distinctions that others without their skill cannot. To get a fuller sense for this phenomenon, we need to think about something more wideranging than mere physical skills. We need to return to a time when craftsmen’s skills were central to the way people lived their lives…
…It is worth noting that although there is nothing mysterious about this vision of the master wheelwright — it is in no way magical or supernatural — nevertheless this phenomenon is already a revelation. For considered properly it is the clue to a whole new understanding of who we are. The wheelwright sees meaningful distinctions in the wood — distinctions of worth and of quality — that in no way find their source in him…
…The task of the craftsman is not to generate the meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there.
So I ask you to make this your task for 2019: what is the craft you will bring into the world? What will be your poiesis? What meaning already exists in the world that you will be the one to discern?
Think of it both in terms of what work you may bring into the world and wonder at as you do; but also, what are you yourself in the process of becoming? For I truly believe in that in poiesis — “the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before” — you can be molding and shaping and creating something within you, too that will help change the world, and bring you joy and meaning.
Happy new year. I can’t wait to see what you do with it.