‘To Make Our Strength a Blessing’

Longtime Habitat for Humanity volunteer Herm Haffner ’77 led students on this WABASH project in Linden, IN in 2008.

Steve Charles—As I was making plans to help organize a group for this weekend’s WABASH Day national day of community service, I was reminded of award-winning writer Scott Russell Sanders’ essay “The Uses of Muscle,” published more than a decade ago in Wabash Magazine and reprinted this year in Sanders’ latest collection, Earth Works.

“When I was a boy growing up on the country roads of Tennessee and Ohio, the men I knew all earned a hardscrabble living with the strength of their hands and arms and backs,” Sanders begins. “They arm wrestled at the volunteer fire department, smacked baseballs over fences at the schoolyard, and at the county fair they swung sledge hammers to see who was the mightiest of the lot.”

Sanders pays tribute to his father, “a brawny, joking, red-haired charmer who often won those contests.

“He never liked the fit of a desk or a starched shirt, so as soon as he came home from the office he would put on overalls and go to work in the shop, garden, or barn. He could fix every machine we owned… He took pleasure in using his strength and skill, and I took pleasure in watching him.”

Sanders considers how so much of that masculine strength, at least in young men, is channeled into sports, where they “gain some of the benefits offered by hard physical work.

“At their best, they inspire in athletes a respect for discipline, skill, and cooperation. What sports can’t provide, however, is the satisfaction of doing something useful. Although they offer entertainment, they don’t build anything, raise anything, fix anything, or make anything.”

Sanders asks: “How might boys and young men—or, for that matter, men of any age—use their muscles for something beside recreation or mischief?”

Brian Hughes ’11, Vince Okerson ’10, and Seth Young ’11 work on the roof of the Habitat for Humanity project in Linden, Indiana.

Following a list of suggestions that sound a lot like some of the projects for this year’s WABASH Day, Sanders gives us words that might be inscribed somewhere in the Allen Athletics Center, close to where students, faculty, and staff work out and practice for sports, as a reminder of other good and helpful ways we might use our muscles. But they seem a more fitting quote for WABASH Day, when so many students and alumni will be doing exactly that:

“The physical power I saw in my father and in the other men I knew while growing up was not for show, not for playing games, but for carrying on the necessary tasks of life. Since fewer and fewer of our households or jobs demand such power, those of us who still inherit the old hormonal rush, acquired by our male ancestors over thousands of generations, may now use our muscles to serve others.

“Freed from toil, we may choose to make our strength a blessing for our neighbors and our neighborhoods.”

Jon Pactor ’71 didn’t have Sanders’ words in mind when he envisioned WABASH Day eight years ago, but whatever inspired him, I’m sure glad he thought of it. And 11 years after being moved by Sanders words, I’m looking forward to finally putting the camera down for a change and using my muscles for something other than the click of the shutter.

Read Scott Russell Sanders’ essay here.

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