See that? It’s my new antidepressant.
Until a few weeks ago, I had never wielded an axe. But we had these two trees in our yard that had to come down, and given how much I love wood fires it seemed prudent to keep the wood. Unfortunately, the arborist wasn’t willing to go as far as splitting the logs for me.
That’s how I wound up on Amazon, buying an axe.
It arrived two days later. I had watched a youtube video and read a few articles about how to split wood, and so I ventured out into the backyard to get started on my woodpile. I set up a large stump as a chopping block, cleared the area around it of tripping hazards, and picked out a couple of good-looking logs to be my first victims.
I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow (pun intended.) Instead I’ll just tell you that the entire time, I felt like some Hollywood princess on a reality show about trying to live like pioneers. The axe bounced. The wood toppled over. I chipped off tiny little pieces of kindling when I’d really been aiming for the centre of the log. After an hour I was sweating profusely and my arms were shaking. I had split a grand total of ten logs. It felt good.
I definitely had that post-workout high. And then there was the satisfaction of doing something productive and useful (something I could actually physically point to and say, “that wasn’t there before, and now it is.”) It was so unlike the feeling of completing any other household chore. You know that feeling? “Look at that clean floor! I just mopped it and it looks so goo- oh. It’s okay, honey. I know you didn’t mean to spill the entire bottle of juice (sob).”
In psychology 100, we learned about “learned helplessness.” Scientists put puppies in a box with a little divider. Once the puppies were settled on one side of the box, they were given a mild electric shock. The puppies moved to the other side. At this point, the control group was left alone (only receiving shocks if they returned to the first side of the box) while the experimental group was given shocks no matter where they moved. It didn’t take long for the puppies in the experimental group to just lie down and give up. That’s learned helplessness: the feeling that whatever you do, nothing will ever change. And learned helplessness is a factor in clinical depression.
So much of our work is cerebral, ephemeral, or both. It’s easy to feel like what we do doesn’t really make a difference. There’s so little concrete work in our modern urban lives. That’s why I’ll be heading out most mornings to swing an axe, chop some wood, and achieve a better life through manual labour.