Zen and the Art of Lacing Shoes

In Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber tells the story of Rabbi Leib, who goes to an itinerant preacher, a Maggid, for enlightenment. When asked, “What did you learn at the Maggid’s table?” Rabbi Leib responded, “I did not go to the Maggid in order to hear Torah from him, but to see how he unlaces his felt shoes and laces them up again.”

It has taken me a lifetime to learn this lesson. It took that long, because I thought that focusing on the way you do things rather than the thing itself took too much time. I was a smart guy. I could get straight to the endgame without having to go through the ritualized learning that I thought was for others but not me. I either overlooked or misunderstood a grave reality. Things are never done. There is always something else on the list.

In my arrogance–please do not judge me according to the sins of my youth (Ps 25.7), I also assumed that there was a hierarchy to life and that certain things were so beneath me that they did not merit discussion. Which things? At the top of the list were making money and attending law school. Had I thought about it, I would have added lacing my shoes. Don’t laugh. I have been suffering from the consequences ever since. As a character in my favorite Spanish Netflix series says, “Some decisions stay with us for the rest of our lives.”

Lately, I have come to the realization that the focus should be on neither the thing you do, nor the way you do it. Sure, these are important, especially when you’re doing technical work like calculating the rate of fuel consumption on a manned spacecraft, or performing endoscopic, robotic heart surgery. But the real importance–where truth lies–is the effect that doing these things has on you. Why is this important? Because the effect it has on you affects the way you relate to others and yourself, especially over time. So, neither a shoe nor a lacer be.


By way of example, in my business ethics classes I have students follow a procedure I call “Case Study Analysis.” They gather data, interpret the data, construct what they believe to be the narrative or story of the case, and then make recommendations about how to solve the ethical dilemma. The actual case they are working on is important, as is following protocol. But the real impact is when they have disciplined their minds to think both analytically and creatively. In other words, it is the effect on them as persons.

This reminds me of Robert Pirsig’s 70s classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig describes “quality” as the way something is done rather than the thing being done. He sidesteps classic and aesthetic approaches to life and concentrates on craftsmanship, which could include anything. He applies it specifically to motorcycle maintenance and the self.

“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be ‘out there’ and the person that appears to be ‘in here’ are not two separate things.” When they are, it is called hypocrisy, and you see it everywhere. You want to know the truth about someone’s character? Ask the waitress or customer service agent. You can’t be a holy man of Torah and lace your shoes in a hurried manner. You can’t weld metal disdainfully or by the numbers. The difference is in you, which Aristotle called virtue.

Virtue requires time, a lot of it. It takes forever to learn the art of lacing, let alone motorcycle maintenance or the self. However, I suppose we can take comfort in knowing that we can start with something as simple as shoes. I knew there was a reason for my fascination with them.

Like fiction? Check out the “Mercury trilogy” (The Gringo and Laura Fedora) as well as the autobiographical Nine Lives here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”

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