Almost every man who visits my home wants to chop wood. I’m happy for the help. Logs from a felled tree and large branches from spring trimming have been sitting in piles between the field and the house for well over a year. It’s an eyesore. It’s also a lot of wood to saw and chop myself.
Sometimes it’s single guys who like the idea of swinging a maul (after learning the difference between a maul and an axe, that is). Other times they’re married, their wives inside with mine admiring the physical prowess of their husbands—or more likely wondering why this, of all activities, is how we choose to spend our Saturday afternoon, especially since we don’t technically need the wood.
I live in Texas. It’s never cold for long. Our fireplace was designed more for aesthetics than warmth. As for the eyesore, there are half a dozen businesses nearby willing to bring a woodchipper capable of removing the entire pile in an hour or less.
Admittedly, I’m not particularly well suited to chopping wood either. The first time I picked up a maul, I was thirty years old. I grew up in a suburb in Southern California, where chopping wood is even less necessary than in Texas. And out of my three brothers, nobody expected the glasses-wearing bookworm who shrank from team sports and studiously avoided danger and dirt to buy several acres of wild land and a farmhouse in need of fixing.
So why do I do it? And why do my friends want to chop wood too?
There are a few possible reasons. Maybe the crack of a dry round and a growing pile of red oak logs overcomes the alienation of modern office work that separates labor from production. Maybe, as Ronald Dworkin posited in the April issue, happiness requires resistance—the pleasure of triumphing over something. Maybe men have an innate desire to learn physical, practical skills. Maybe breaking things is fun. Or maybe, like a workout at the gym, guys just want to do something that makes them stronger.
All of these reasons can be true. But for me, there’s another reason, at once facile and profound.
I chop wood because I choose to do it. By deciding not to call in the woodchipper, I manufactured an obligation, and it had to be met. It’s as simple as that.
We’re not used to thinking of obligations as something chosen. Especially for those high enough on the income or social mobility scale, most external forces imposing constraints or duties have been stripped away. There are no fathers who need to approve of our marriages. We don’t have a career path we’re expected to follow. If we don’t like New York, we can move to Miami. If we don’t like cities, we can move to the country. And who needs wood to keep warm? Just turn up the HVAC.
That freedom to choose between an ever-widening array of possibilities is supposed to be the key to happiness. When deprived of that freedom, we tend to imagine what could have been.
I sense that when I chop wood. With the cumulative swings, I wonder: Would I have gained more satisfaction spending the day at a biergarten rather than adding to a relatively unnecessary pile of wood? For that matter, what if my wife and I had chosen to move to a subdivision instead of to a plot of untamed land, or to Tucson instead of Texas? Then I wouldn’t have wood piles to worry about at all. Would I be happier there?
It’s hard to chop wood with thoughts like these—not because throwing a maul takes much mental effort. Rather, the “what ifs” embitter the sweetness of what is. If I spend too much time thinking of AC, I forget to appreciate the nature around me. If I long for the ease of a suburban tract, I neglect savoring the earthy smell of the dry dirt. That, and I forget that those choices have costs too. Suburbs have fewer trees to take care of but a lot more neighbors who care invasively about what color I paint my door.
Every choice has an opportunity cost. Every choice locks you in. But when good choices are joyfully embraced, those chains become liberating, because it’s impossible to enjoy something while desiring to enjoy everything. It’s impossible to enjoy something without depriving yourself of something else.
That’s the paradox. Yes, happiness requires striving for what you desire, but it also demands loving what you have.
We’re taught from a young age to reach for the stars and overcome the obstacles before us. For the most part, the liberty to do just that is good. No one wants his work and life to be determined by forces beyond his control. While many hardships are necessary, no one should be resigned to suffer solely because “that’s the way it is.” We should strive to improve our lot.
But the freedom to relentlessly pursue our desires comes with a big catch. If you continually keep your options open—if you wait too long to marry, to have children, to settle in one place, care for your land and community, and chain yourself to life-giving obligations—you lose the opportunity to experience in their fullness those few things you could have truly enjoyed. And when you do have good things, imperfect as they may be, nothing does more damage than to wonder “what if.” Hearts that wander to what they could possess become ungrateful for what they already have.
My wife and children, the land I own, the parish I attend, the job I have: These are the facts of my life. They are the duties I’ve chosen, and I can’t enjoy any of them if I desire something else.
So yes, maybe next Saturday I could go to the movies. Maybe I could take a hike. Maybe then I’d enjoy my Saturday even more. Perhaps. But if I wonder too long, I’ll sacrifice the pleasure of chopping wood.
Alec Torres is the co-founder of Allograph and author of Persecuted from Within: How the Saints Endured Crises in the Church, forthcoming from Sophia Institute Press.
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