Periodical 17 — Useful Lifetimes

One’s moral progress is measured in unexpected moments.

Good morning! The house is full of the aroma of baking muffins, which my daughter requested I make first thing this morning. I happily obliged. She and my son are munching away at them as I type this.

What’s the oldest, most useful object in your home? Ours is probably the 8” Griswold skillet my wife inherited from her grandmother. As far as we can tell, it’s of the series produced between 1939 and 1957, making it at least 67 years old, potentially older. It’s not the oldest object in our home, but it’s the one that gets the most use.

Second place goes to either the KitchenAid mixer my wife inherited from her Great-Aunt Butchie — a model made in ca. ~1978 — or a pair of wooden trivets I grew up using which are probably about the same age.

Heirlooms are, by definition, objects of value. But value isn’t exactly objective. Replacements of our skillet and mixer — of equivalent vintage and condition — can be acquired for around $100 each. They’d look and work the same as the ones we have. But they wouldn’t feel the same. It wouldn’t mean the same thing to us to use them. Our daughter is named for my wife’s grandmother — a person I was never able to meet. Whenever I hold her skillet, I imagine her holding it and that makes me feel like I’m connecting with someone of deep importance to the person most important to me. When we use the mixer or trivets, they come with experience imbued from having been in many family homes, under countless family meals, in the rooms warmed by bodies no longer here. Imagine if we could extract what objects like these record.

Some heirlooms are things you hide away in keepsake boxes. But the ones I value most are the ones that remain useful — the ones that play an active role in our day to day lives. Using them reminds us of why they’re important and what they represent to us.

If you’re reading this, I’d love to hear about the objects in your home that have been useful for the longest time. Email me at: .

The other day, I pulled into a space in front of the grocery store. As I turned my engine off, a woman began backing her car out of the space next to mine. She must not have assessed the distance between us properly; I felt a jolt as the front of her vehicle hit the side of mine and scraped its way along my passenger door.

I got out of my car. She got out of hers. I didn’t think about my reaction, which was immediate: “Are you alright?” I asked. Her face, contorted by shock and worry, briefly contracted even more and then relaxed. “Well, yes,” she replied, “but what about your car?”

We looked at the side of my car. A minor dent and visible scrape now sat in the middle of the passenger door. Not exactly something I could just buff out.

I turned back to the woman and said, “Eh, no big deal.” She, on the verge of tears, stuttered, “Are…you..sure?” I said, “Yes, I’m sure.” She stood there for a moment and then looked up at me and asked, “Can I give you a hug?” We embraced. I said, “There’s no reason this has to be the worst part of either of our days. Maybe it could be the best.”

As I did my grocery shopping, I thought to myself how glad I was that I had responded the way I did. I was glad that I hadn’t needed to think about it — that mercy was my reflex. Yes, if my car needs a repair, I’ll be the one funding it, not the woman responsible for the damage. But, so what? There’s so much more at stake in moments like that than just some money.

My car is over a decade old. I keep it in good condition, but I’m not precious about how it looks. It runs well; that’s what it needs to do. I sincerely don’t care that it now has a scrape on its side.

I do care that my words and actions in this world don’t cause damage; that they contribute to goodness and peace. I do care about justice, and in this moment, pursuing episodic justice — holding an apparently fragile, elderly woman accountable for the result of an accident — would have been a broader injustice. Look, I’m no saint. But that’s why this moment means so much. There was a time when I’m sure I wouldn’t have been so charitable with my actions or my words. One’s moral progress is measured in unexpected moments.

Be sure to measure your own and look for opportunities to give justice, not just receive it.

Written by Christopher Butler on February 17, 2024,   In Log

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