I recently overheard a conversation between my brother-in-law, John, and his son, my nephew, J.P. I have been sheltering with them and my sister, Ronda, this summer at Ronda’s and John’s house in Iowa City, Iowa. The conversation I overhead concerned an unexpected problem John and J.P. had run into while working on a home construction project. I have witnessed many such construction projects because John and J.P. are accomplished do-it-yourselfers, a characteristic I admire but have never possessed. Whether it is replacing a shower, putting stone on the front of the house, repairing the deck or the plumbing, or replacing the flooring in their motor home, I have never seen them go very long without working on some sort of improvement project.
The particular conversation I overheard this time was typical of many I have heard over the years. A problem they had not anticipated develops. Sometimes the problem is something they might have foreseen and prevented and sometimes not. Sometimes it is a mistake they have made either in the design or the doing of the project. How the problem arises makes no difference. Time is not wasted in assigning blame. John and J.P. analyze what is wrong and decide together how they can fix it. And they approach every problem with the attitude that they can fix it. I have often heard them say, in the midst of some difficulty they had not planned for, words to the effect that “it will all work out.” And it does, one way or another, because they keep working at it until they accomplish their goal to make something better.
After overhearing their conversation this time, it occurred to me that that John and J.P. have developed not just a practical way of approaching home improvement projects. It is also a practical way of approaching improvement projects for ourselves and our world.
I first heard about tikkun olam when I read a book by Rabbi Michael Lerner. According to Wikipedia, “Tikkun olam (Hebrew: תיקון עולם, literally ‘repair of the world’) is a concept in Judaism, often interpreted as aspiration to behave and act constructively and beneficially. . . . In the modern era . . . tikkun olam is the idea that Jews bear responsibility not only for their own moral, spiritual, and material welfare, but also for the welfare of society at large. For many contemporary pluralistic Rabbis, the term refers to ‘Jewish social justice’ or ‘the establishment of Godly qualities throughout the world’.”
We do not have the luxury of ever living in a perfect world. Instead, we inhabit a world that, while often beautiful and awe-inspiring, is also broken. These days, the COVID-19 pandemic and the protesting voices declaring that black lives matter are just two examples that make us keenly aware that our world is broken in all sorts of ways.
Our job as spirit-filled, compassionate people, is not to create a perfect world without problems and pain and frustration. Instead, our job is only to do what we can to improve life where we are. We need not waste time in assigning blame or throwing up our hands in despair. No, our task is to recognize and analyze what the problems we see around us are and to resolve to fix them. We are called to keep alive the hope that the world can be repaired, to believe that we have what it takes to help fix it, and then to do our work to make it all work out. We are not called to be perfectionists, bystanders, or merely worriers, as if there is nothing we can do. What this broken world cries out for, what we can be, are spiritual do-it-yourselfers