Confessions of a former axe grinder

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By Patrick Schmadeke

“You have to help me convince her that she’s wrong,” I said to my friend. I was a young man; no, I was a young punk, on a mission from God, or at least a mission that would make God happy. Luckily, I can look back and smile — oh the naïveté.

Schmadeke

Ten years ago, I developed a romantic interest in the lovely woman I was lucky enough to marry. Among the many reasons for my interest: she was a devoted church-goer, a regular at Bible study, someone rich in spirituality, and committed to being in contact with those less fortunate than she. How do I put this? Well, I was “dating up.” There was just one problem: she was Lutheran. Actually, for the person I was a decade ago, this was a major problem.

As you can gather, religion was one of my favorite axes to grind. I had not yet been formed by the church’s approach to ecumenism, nor was I ready for it. One needs experience in ecumenism before one can wrestle with the church’s teaching on ecumenism. In other words, one needs an ecumenical heart before one can develop an ecumenical mind, and developing an ecumenical heart requires life lived in kinship, understanding and a will oriented by the good of the other without condition. One can imagine the relevance of such a disposition beyond ecumenism in today’s world: think religion, politics, issues of social justice, and beyond.

The problem with axe grinding is that one is too busy talking to be able to listen, too preoccupied by one’s proclivities to be able to cherish others and too busy “knowing it all” to be able to learn. For the record, I was not an “axe grinder” in all things; in truth, I was relatively mild. I certainly had my soapbox moments. Having put down the axe a long time ago, a few things have become clearer to me.

First, axe grinding is rooted in ideology. Ideologues are difficult to confront because they imagine themselves to be immune to error. They also have a laser-like focus on what they think is the most pertinent issue. Such a focus is blind to the wider horizon of concerns that alternative perspectives offer. Indeed, these perspectives are not a potential source of value or insight, but are instead a distraction. This makes dialogue appear to be of little value.

An antidote to the ideologue’s monopoly on truth is consistent exposure to new information that does not directly confront but instead comes at similar questions from different angles. This is a matter of subtle suggestions rooted in love. Good ideas take root and make space for other good ideas. The best ideas are rooted in personal encounters. The lives and work of Sister Helen Prejean (Dead Man Walking) and Father Gregory Boyle (Tattoos on the Heart) are testimony to the transformative capacity of genuine encounter.

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Secondly, ideology lacks a full appreciation for people’s humanity. This sounds harsh. Unfortunately, ideas can become more important than people. Sadly, ideologues judge others by the degree to which they have a shared worldview.

An antidote to this is relationships and communities of love and commitment. Persons need to know that they are loved before they are capacitated to become better people. Once the ideologue is swept into a share in the humanity of others, the ideologue’s rigidity begins to dissolve. Now the stories of other people are worth hearing.
Thirdly, the ideologue does not appreciate and avoids beauty. Beauty in nature, craft, art, literature and the performing arts or in our neighbor draws persons out of themselves. Beauty is needed because of its disarming quality — it can make people forget they were holding an axe in the first place.

Finally, patience is essential. Putting down the axe is a gradual process. Eventually, the ideologue becomes grounded by love, refined by truth and disarmed by beauty. The first of these is always love.

(Editor’s note: Patrick Schmadeke is a graduate of St. Ambrose University (‘13) and a graduate of the Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame.)


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