The Unrepaired and the Irreparable

In chapter six of Spelman’s Repair, she writes of what we perhaps should not repair, despite our natural inclination to the past. Ruins are her first example, crumbling and decaying remnants of ancient cities and monuments. We should preserve them for many reasons, besides the fact that they are strangely alluring for morbid joy or reminding ourselves of our own mortality. For one, we preserve them for their authentic connection to the past. Many people today can stand where great philosophers taught and religious ceremonies were held.

If ruins speak of and speak to humans’ relationship to their gods and to nature, they also mediate our relations with other humans, both living and dead. Plato may no longer be with us, but standing in the Acropolis, the living philosopher can imagine being in conversation with him. (107)

An even greater connection can be made by someone if the original structures were constructed by ancestors of their racial identity rather than just our precursors as human beings. Ruins can also remind us not only that we may die, but that we can make mistakes. A reminder of mortality can be as simple as watching a clock for too long, but ruins show that even the mighty will crumble and fall at a misstep. The ruins of Rome bring to mind their belligerent concurring and over reliance on slaves as a crutch for their society’s economy. Repairing ruins destroys their meaning, almost as if we are pretending the past never existed.

But not everything that breaks can be fixed. The skills we repairing animals have to learn include the self reflexive one of coming to grips with the limits of those skills and figuring out what to do in the face of the irreparable. In many cases the judgement that is something is irreparable is not straightforward and the declaration of irreparability represents the result of struggles over when, where, and how to use our reparative resources. Moreover, both reparability and irreparability have their consolations, so we can’t assume that declarations of irreparabilty are always and everywhere met with dismay or disappointment.

Thinking in terms of what we should not repair reminds me of a much more personal struggle that every human will go through in their own life time. Some may see their current life as ruins, far from the glory days that they once had. A star athlete in college gets injured before going professional, growing old and unable to let their memories rest or seek out new enjoyable experiences. A man laid off from his dream job becomes depressed and develops an eating disorder. A happy romantic couple breaks up and neither one of them are truly ready to have another person in their lives yet but both immediately search desperately anyway. Not only are the damages of time unrepairable through restoration, but searching for repair in our lives because we can not accept what is broken, not accepting that we sometimes do not have control over what is broken, or not realizing that we were never really “broken” to begin with, is simply destructive.


Homo Sapiens are Repairing Animals

“There is first of all the repair of the human body. The body has an awesome capacity to repair itself in ways that are to the ordinary observer visible (e.g., the healing of a cut) and invisible (e.g., the continual self-repair of DNA, or the recently discovered capacity of the human heart to repair itself). But it can’t do that, and will cease doing it, without being fed and watered.” (pg.33)

What I found interesting about this passage was that it was conveniently allocated in a chapter regarding the differences between gender in the way that we repair.  Spelman added a reference which touches on our basic biological fundamentals as humans – the fact that every single human being is constantly repairing themselves without the awareness of it. No matter the demographics, man, woman, white, black, young, old, educated, or not, etc., our bodies are already hardwired to repair what has been damaged.  This illuminates the basic similarities of every human in a passage which was intended  on highlighting the distinctions between them.

Maybe this biological occurrence is where our need to fix everything stems from. The outside world where things break and do not mend is unsettling to us. We have an unconscious need to fix everything that once was, because our bodies do not break and then stay broken. When we fall and scrape our knees, we do not bleed out until there is nothing left. We scab and mend, and continue moving forward as things had been once before. It may leave a scar, but we are shown that when damage happens we still repair. But when a dish shatters, unless we place it back together, it will remain broken. Which again, doesn’t sit right with what we have been taught from the beginning of time from the way our bodies work. When we fix things, whether it be an object or a relationship, we expect to return to the way things previously were despite the damage. After repairing a relationship, things never really go back to the normalcy possessed before damage. The relationship is either weaker or stronger, likewise with the repair of objects. Sometimes the repair allows the object to function better or be better equipped to protect itself against future damage, and other times the repair allows the object to continue being, but with more fragility and vulnerability than before.

This piece of the chapter brought the theories of Spelman’s book to a whole new understanding for me. The fact that our bodies, before being adulterated by salves or medicine, has the basic function to repair and heal, goes even further into the foundation of Spelman’s claim in this book; that humans are prone to repair. This part of the text allowed myself, as the reader, to not only understand the repair theories but to expand on them from my individualized sense of the world, and I expect it will do the same for others who make sense of the world in similar ways to myself. So, now to expand on this idea, I ask, can this biological need and desire to repair then be somewhat of an impediment for humans in interactions with the outside world?

            “The story of H. reparans throws into sharp relief how we humans have responded to the fact of being creatures who are inherently limited by the resources at our disposal, who are subject to the ever present possibility of failure and decay, who sometimes seek continuity with the past, and who face the necessity of deciding whether or not to patch up relationships with our neighbors – in short, it reminds us of some facts about the human condition that perhaps we tend to find disturbing. And yet, once introduced, Homo sapiens as repairing animal typically invites grasps of recognition and suggestions that we’ve barely begun to explore the many projects and habitats of H. reparans” (pg.139)

People tend to feel restrained or stuck when things don’t go their way or don’t come easy. Our immediate reaction to not getting what we want, whether it be a physical thing or a result/reaction, is to stop trying. Of course over time we realized that this is a silly response and we must make do with what we are given but this response sometimes restrains us from reaching our full potential. This is the difference between humans and all other living things; we are the only organism that ever restricts itself from growth.

As said before, we see that with our bodies when we are damaged we heal and therefore it feels unsettling when things don’t repair on their own, like the example of a dish shattering – staying broken until we take action to glue it back together. With the outside world, where our emotions operate, we see that healing isn’t a natural occurrence and in that we create mental blocks. When I used to do competitive cheerleading at an international level (obviously, some serious stuff), we were always pushed to learn new skills, and until the skill was mastered we knew there was an almost ensured possibility of falling. But to us that meant progress, so we got back up and tried again because we knew were one fall closer to achieving the skill; or one failure closer to success. One season, right before competing at the world championship, I thought myself into a mental block with tumbling, (the running and doing flips and stuff), due to all the external pressures of trying to please coaches and teammates. I terrified myself with thoughts of failing to a point where I wasn’t even able perform skills I had mastered for years. I would go for the skill, get to the transition for it, (if you want to get technical) a round-off then the back-handspring and rebound up for the skill and just freeze, I was stuck. I knew not being able to even try the skill was seen as worse than just falling, but my brain was too messed up with anxiety to even communicate to my body what to do. The fact that I stopped myself from doing something I was completely physically capable of, due to fear of failure, is extremely stupid when really thinking about it. To have fear of failure take over the body, and stop one from progressing to maximum potential as a person is disturbing. In a more universal context, to have the fear of giving the wrong answer in class stop someone from raising their hand to try answering, is disturbing; The idea that we actually restrict ourselves from reaching our full growth and potential is disturbing.

To go deeper into the fear of failure and where it stems from, again relates back to our biological needs to repair. As our always bodies self-repair, that unsettling feeling of something being broken also emerges when something just isn’t perfect. In our society and through human interactions we, at some point, began to see ‘imperfect’ as needing to be fixed and failures as the inability to fix. And this idea translated into the way we look at ourselves and other people. We all have thoughts similar to: “If I was prettier or more handsome, maybe people would like me more ” or “If I was smarter or funnier, I would be better off”. We even have some thoughts as ridiculous towards others as “She would be more attractive if she did something with those ratty curls in her hair” or “He would be much better looking if he would put some meat on those bones”. We see imperfection or flaws of ourselves and others, or just of humans in general, as needing to be fixed. And by seeing them as needing to be fixed, we think there is something wrong with them. Which is again, disturbing. That we decide that people have something wrong with them if they are not up to societal standards or even our own standards, or that we even have standards for how we think people should be. 1950’s mental institutions or asylums is a classic example of this occurrence. A person is seen with a flaw or problem and we think they need to be fixed. And if we can’t see a fix to a person’s ‘damage’, like an object it is declared not worthy of fixing and disposed. Until fairly recently in our history, people would actually give up their own children if they had physical or mental disabilities. Meaning we, at one point, deemed people unworthy of love or care or even a second glance, if they were perceived as “imperfect”. That is unbelievably disturbing.

Our need to repair is an inexplicably complex notion. Our bodies are constantly repairing; we all do it. We break and mend; We wound and heal. It is an amazing and fascinating gift received by all living creatures. Our body’s internal repair shows no discrimination, yet somehow when this phenomenon is brought into the outside world via the human mind, (an internal organ which is treated with the body’s indiscriminate means of repair), in terms of social interaction, it turns into just that; discrimination. We have mixed up our need to ‘repair’ with a need to ‘fix’. Our bodies repair, go back to a state previous to damage. Imperfections cannot be repaired, because they were never perfect; they can only be fixed. We see failures as imperfections, that are wrong, and as damage that needs to be fixed. We tell ourselves that being imperfect makes us incompetent of success, and we tell others that too. I am not only talking about complexion or character of a person being deemed imperfect and wrong but also mental and physical disability, race, and sexual orientation being part of the discrimination. In fear of this discrimination, we have fear of being imperfect, and needing to be fixed, or of failure, and being deemed unfixable, and essentially scare ourselves into restricting our own growth and potential. “Homo sapiens as repairing animal[s]” cannot progress with that unsettling or ‘disturbed’ feeling of something being damaged, or broken, or wrong, or imperfect. And the “recognition” or “suggestions” of this explore “… some of the facts about the human condition that perhaps we tend to find disturbing”.

Ruin, Repair, and Taped-up Shoes

I remember as a child, while on vacations my mother would drag me to see the ruins. I was never very interested; as someone so young I was still trying to understand the eccentricities of life which left me with very little time for what follows. In her book, Repair, Elizabeth Spelman discusses repair in terms of ruins, a peculiar case. She notes:

 When it comes to ruins, H. reperans better take of its tool belt- not so much because there is nothing it can possibly do, but because any work it might do would threaten the status of the remains as ruins and diminish their power to give pleasure or instruct. (Spelman 104)

Ruins are by their nature a preservation of history and what once was. To attempt to return them to their functionality is to erase its history and the damage that so defines it, degrading it to essentially nothing. Ruins are similar cases to paintings in that any work done to repair them diminishes their authenticity, such as the work done by Louise, Irene, and co. And while as a child I was uninspired by the mass of rubble that were the ruins of ancient civilizations and their dorky tourist traps in another sense I have spent much of my life preserving my own. My ruins however are not so much in the literal sense of weathered colonies or dismantled castles, so much as a long worn out pair of shoes.

If ruins speak of and speak to humans’ relationship to their gods, and to nature, they also mediate our relations with other humans, both living and dead. (Spelman 107)

In SAT question format- Machu Picchu is to the Incas as a pair of Chuck Taylor Converse are to me. A well-used pair of shoes, a ruin of the once crisp, pristine, fresh-out of the box, black high top Chuck Taylor Converse they once were. On the toe is the word “Spaceman” a reference to an old Killers song I still love. The sole of the left shoe is secured with Scotch blue painter’s tape, as the house was out of duct tape and my 12 year old feet had grown too big for my 11 year old shoes. The bumpers of each shoe had long since turned yellow, brown and black, nearly every color with all of my steps, the word “ALL STAR” is still distinguished on the heel despite clear fading due to repeated inscription in a black sharpie. My shoes, while appearing worn down, exhausted and dilapidated have never been of more used to me then as they serve now, acting as a memory. Just as the fraying brown stained laces of my converse intertwine so do the bonds they create between my past and current self, a way to memorialize the small girl that once occupied those shoes. Within each ding to the rubber liner and each scuff is both the story of the shoe and its wearer. The traces of a piece of gum wedged to the bottom of the shoe- serves as a reminder of a trip to New York, a distortion in the sole- a lesson on the consequences of putting shoes in the dryer. My shoes are as much a part of me as Chichen Itza is to the Mayan culture. Any attempt to restore them to their initial state is a removal of their history, my history, and my memory of the 12 year old that once wore them.

Apology as a tool for repair

A child apologized to the mother after lying to cover up having accidentally broken a window. An employee apologized to the boss after losing a client due to negligence. A husband apologized to the wife for cheating. A defendant apologized to the plaintive in court during sentencing. A company CEO apologized to the public over some scandal. In Chapter 5 of her book, In the Toolbox: Words and Money, Spelman turns her attention to the roles of apology and (monetary) reparation within the framework of “restorative justice”. Two simple words that belie the complexity of the task facing homo reparans.

indeed, Spelman went on to spend nineteen pages of her book on the first of the two “tools”. An apology may begin with a simple “I am sorry,” but that could very well be just a preamble. As she described it, “[a]n apology is an invitation to share in a ritual of repair, in a dance that takes more than one dancer. (p.85)” In offering an apology, the apologizer is expecting some sort of forgiveness, resolution of conflict, or at least a token of closure, such that both parties can put the past behind them and move on with their respective lives. Spelman suggested that a genuine apology necessitates that the apologizer must make himself vulnerable, for example by an admission of guilt. Then the mind games begin in earnest. Did the apologizer do it in the hope of escaping punishment? Did he do it because he fears even harsher repercussions?  Or as Spelman might have hinted, is it possible that the apologizer is simply hoping to benefit from donning a cloak of virtue? (p. 90, p. 96)

In a sense, apologies are so common and frequent in everyday life that the words “I’m sorry” are probably as devoid of meaning as is the use of the four-letter word as an obligatory adverb. One can actually find templates of letters of apology on the internet! Very often, apologies are also employed as a defensive gambit (as in a game of chess), to forswear any intent and thus accountability. In fact, such practices are so well-known that they have begun to carry a stigma of their own. Even Shakespeare opined, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” When a person begins with an apology every time he opens his mouth, will anyone take his apologies seriously? Therefore, an apology sometimes runs the risk of eliciting exactly the opposite effect of what it purports to accomplish.

So an apology must first be deemed genuine before there is any hope of being considered; then there is the question of whether the apology is sufficiently commensurate with the damage it aims to address. In fact, it is not uncommon for a verbal (or written) apology to be accompanied by additional acts of contrition. As the saying goes, “action speak louder than words”. This is why money is often also found in the toolbox. In this modern global capitalistic society, money is the gold standard by which everything else, including justice, is measured. So it is not surprising that monetary reparation often come into the equation. Nonetheless, when the damage involves loss of human lives, reparation purely in monetary terms might come across as callous, undignified, or downright insulting.


In the novel “Fail Safe” (Burdick & Wheeler, 1962), after a stray strategic bomber let loose a nuclear device on the city of Moscow, the American President had to come up with a “proper” apology pronto to avoid a full-scale thermonuclear annihilation. In the end, the president asked a trusted friend to drop an atomic bomb on New York City. In real life, on various levels ranging from personal to international, “players” have to come up with measured apologies to repair broken relationships or forestall potentially dire consequences. Let’s hope that homo reparans will be resourceful enough so that the nightmarish scenarios similar to the one depicted in the novel will never materialize.

Reparations and Apolpogies

The best way to seek forgiveness is possibly both reparations and an emotional apology. Not everyone will be willing to hear out or answer an apology. This is explained by Spelman,

“The one to whom the apology is offered can threaten the exe­cution of the apology if she disagrees with the description of that for which the apology is offered”(84), “Silence is-but does not seem-an option for the person to whom the apology is offered”(85).

Using solely reparations is cold-hearted and harder to grasp onto for the one who is offered the apology. We see an example of this in chapter five when Spelman discusses the reparations the United States government gave to the surviving victims and their families of the Tuskegee. Regardless of the hefty ten million dollars, the African-American community is understandably still frustrated with the government. Although the lack of emotion in the apology from Bill Clinton comes more from the lack of validity in his emotion as he was uninvolved in the U.S.’s racial atrocities rather than how legitimately sorrowful he may feel, this is still a strong example of how just reparations are not enough.
When others refuse to hear out my apology, a great way to coerce them into communicating is to use immediate reparations first. For example, in an argument between friends, the apologizer can first ask to take the one harmed out to dinner. This shows that the apologizer is invested and is willing to “pay the price” to talk to the other person without impersonally paying them cash, as well as it being a nice gesture. It may not get them speaking at first, but at least they’re at the table. Then I can begin a genuine apology that they’ll be able to hear and consider. Nine times out of ten this works for me.  No one is happy with solely reparations unless they are completely uninterested in what the potential apologizer has to say in the first place. It is the combination of both that can truly get the job done.

On the opposite side, In chapter 4 of Repair, Spelman discusses the difference between restorative justice and our current justice system. She states that they are both flawed, which is true. Restorative justice works on a fairly open ended case-by-case basis of “punishment” which is hard to enforce as fair when the accused cite precedent. Using a combination of both, with restorative justice variating and traditional justice being the base, I believe we can make a fair and reparative justice system. Say for example, two people both commit robberies, one of a local mom-and-pop shop, and one of a franchise. Both should receive the same sentence from a jury in our justice system. Although the one who stole from the mom-and-pop shop had nearly run them out of business and the community would have suffered because they are emotionally attached to the owners and their memories of visiting the store. That criminal would not only have to apologize to the owners but also other local community members. The criminal who robbed the franchise would in turn only have to apologize to the chain owner as the corporate owners would not have let the store go out of business.