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Easier to Tear Down than to Build Up
An Old Farmhouse and Its Timeless Lesson
On my drive home today I drove past a patch of grass just off the side of the road. Just a patch of grass—that’s all it would seem to be to the occasional passerby but not to me. You see I’ve been driving down this road nearly every day since being able to drive and nearly every day before that even, when I couldn’t drive myself. Though it’s not so much the road but this particular stretch of the road, seven miles or so, that I know so well. I’ve sometimes wondered to myself how many times I’ve gone up and down it, trying to calculate a number, knowing it’s large but not knowing how large. Point is: I’m quite familiar with it. I know every twist and turn. I know how it drives whether light or dark, rain or shine. I know, also, its landmarks, from the spacious barns to the tilted mailboxes.
So to someone just passing by, that patch of grass just off the side of the road would be just that—nothing more, nothing less. And I totally get that. Because up until recently, what used to mark that grassy plot of land was an old farmhouse, and to me, it was just an old farmhouse—nothing more, nothing less. Always in my periphery but never in focus. Ironically, that old farmhouse never really caught my attention until it was reduced to nothing but a patch of grass. But what caught my attention was not so much what I saw then or what I see now but more so what I hadn’t seen—both the before and the in-between. The before being its building up, and the in-between being its tearing down.
I can only imagine how that old farmhouse came about, how a nugget of an idea became a tangible reality. It was not large, nor was it grand. But that doesn’t make it any less impressive. It really is something to build something from the ground up, to go from essentially nothing to a house made with walls and beams, with the amazing potential to become a home with love and dreams.1 I can only imagine the planning which took place (and the bickering, no doubt, from start to finish). How long, how wide, how tall would it be? Such things must be carefully thought out before breaking ground. And a question of equal importance is: What ground to break? “Well why not that patch of grass there!” I imagine them saying, though I bet they never imagined their meticulous plans would eventually amount to the very thing that was before their eyes at that moment just a few generations later. I can only imagine what funds were required. And what materials, what tools, what labor allowed it to slowly but surely take shape? Was it the farmer’s own hands which nailed every board or the hands of another? Either way it was the hands of some soul nonetheless. Small and modest though it was, I can only imagine the blood, sweat, and tears that went into building that old farmhouse.
And while much more time could be spent thinking about how it came about, I need not imagine its tearing down. For decades it stood, yet one day it was there and the next it wasn’t—simple as that. It was as if it never existed in the first place. It’s not difficult to guess how it all went down. Demolition of this sort hardly requires any skill or precision. There’s no beauty in such a process of destruction. What took perhaps months to construct came down in a relative instant. What necessitated perhaps detailed drawings and sketches at the outset needed then only the green light on where and when to swing the hammer. What required perhaps the life savings of a prudent family or at least a substantial amount of sweat equity was reduced to the dirt for a mere fraction of the cost.
So why should you or I or anyone else care about this old farmhouse? Because what really caught my attention on my drive home was the subtle, timeless lesson its absence taught me. It not only taught me how incredibly hard it is to build something up, but more than that, it taught me how ridiculously and frighteningly easy it is to tear that same thing down.
This all reminds me of something Thomas Sowell once said:
The beauty of doing nothing is that you can do it perfectly. Only when you do something is it almost impossible to do it without mistakes. Therefore people who are contributing nothing to society, except their constant criticisms, can feel both intellectually and morally superior.
The beauty of tearing down the world is that you can do it perfectly too. Anyone can wield a sledgehammer. But to effectively employ a chisel or a trowel is quite a different story. And those who tear down the world are far worse than those who do nothing. At least those who merely sneer do so from a distance. They enjoy a feeling of superiority, as Sowell puts it, but hurt only themselves in the process, whereas those who tear down the world take the world down with them.
It’s easy to want to tear down our culture, our institutions, our traditions, or our morals without much thought, not realizing how much thought went into them and what it took to build them (and what it would take to rebuild them). Perhaps we ought to honor that which came before us—what’s been built and those who built it—not necessarily regarding all such things as being absolutely flawless or unblemished but at least giving them the due respect of regarding them at all, as such things may have stood the test of time for reasons worth discovering.
Just like it was easier to tear down than to build up that old farmhouse, it’s easier to tear down than to build up the world. And just like it’s easier to tear down than to build up the world, it’s easier to tear down than to build up your neighbor. Simply tearing things down is easy—but easy is rarely right and scarcely best. You know what’s not easy? Shaping a culture, establishing institutions, upholding traditions, and preserving morals. That’s hard. You know what else isn't easy? Loving your neighbor as yourself. That’s hard too. But that which is hard is for those who have any self-regard.
So was the farmer’s son or grandson or whoever wrong for tearing down that old farmhouse? Who knows. Perhaps it was time to build a new farmhouse. Or perhaps it was just becoming an eye sore. Who cares. Because we’re not here to adjudicate the matter, we’re here for the lesson it teaches us. We’re here for the principle it demonstrates, the principle of how hard it is to build up and how easy it is to tear down; and for the stark contrast it illustrates, the stark contrast between the beautiful, noble nature of the former and the brutish, graceless nature of the latter.
But what was the point of it all, you might think, if in the end that old farmhouse only met its beginning, going from a patch of grass to a patch of grass? What’s the point of building up anything if the hands of another or simply time will only tear it all down in the end? I would say that something’s eventual demise does not rob it of its present meaning. Because when you build a house, it just might become a home—and I’d say that’s meaning enough to quit tearing down everything and everyone, to do the hard thing, and to get building.
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Hat tip to Emerson for the elegant rhyme