Between Two Ways

“We can simplify our society–that is, make ourselves free–only by undertaking tasks of great mental and cultural complexity.” (Wendell Berry 49)

It’s a paradox, of course–a truth that seems counter-intuitive, even contradictory. But it’s neither. It’s just true. We are free when our lives are complex. And when we live lives of complexity, we obtain simple freedom.

Berry points out that, during simpler times (when most of us inhabited rural communities), our work was complex. We built our own houses, grew our own food, and made our own clothes. We navigated the world using a variety of skills.

A farmer–if you’ll forgive the cliche–seldom put his eggs in one basket. He had chickens for eggs and meat, cows for milk, and pigs for meat. He grew corn to feed the animals and himself. But he also grew alfalfa and cotton and wheat. He had a series of enterprises requiring various ways of working. He was not a specialist.

He rotated the crops to take care of the land. He knew that, without the land, there was no way to sustain life. His complex way of living brought simplicity that was freeing. He produced all or most of what he needed. He lived in community but independently.

When we moved to the city, we became specialists.

Our list of skills shrank. Our dependence on others grew. We stopped being producers and became consumers of goods others produced.

In the city, the essence of freedom changed and became something less responsible, more self-focused.

The change is something we attribute to advanced technology, to modernity. But it’s more than that. In our consumption, we lost meaning in our lives.

Loss of meaning changes our core beliefs as a people, a nation. The nature of our beliefs relies largely on where we come from. Two sets of beliefs spring from our different worlds, the countryside and the cityscape, and will not reconcile into a single way of thinking.

We can trace the differences in our core beliefs back to people moving from farmland to city.

In the nineteenth century, moving from the country to the city marked a huge shift in how we saw children.

On the farm, children had been blessings from heaven. Once they reached a certain age, they became helpful hands on the farm. One day they would become heirs of the land. Life in that place would go on as it had before.

In the complex life on a farm, everyone who was able worked. Children jumped in to help with chores as soon as they were old enough. And they somehow became older sooner out in the country.

At the dawn of the urban explosion in the city, men worked. Women stayed home with children whose contributions to sustaining the family were non-existent or small. If the man’s work provided a good living, the woman and children did not need employment. If the reward of his work was meager, his wife and children made their way into sweat-shops.

It was difficult to carry one’s own weight. Yet many found meaning even in such a place. They worked to make sure their own children would not bear a similar burden.

As a child, my father rose early and stood on a street corner selling newspapers every day. He never kept the reward of his work. He contributed his earnings to the household.

He made a better life for his children.

Now, we’ve reached a point where it’s hard to imagine a better life for our children. Is there a better place than the comfortable one we’ve made for ourselves?

Seeking more comfort–or for those in a world of pain because of abuse or neglect, some comfort–has brought us the drug crisis and school shootings.

Young people lack responsibility and self-control largely because they are more concerned about comfort than meaning. Yet they seek meaning. And they can never quite find enough comfort.

The long-yearned-for-prize of comfort revealed itself to be a plastic trinket.

In the countryside, fathers taught (and still teach) youngsters how to shoot a rifle and/or shotgun. Pre-teens hunted and fished (some still do), supplementing the family’s store of food. And these children were also prepared to defend the homestead and the livestock against wild animals or someone with evil intentions. Many still are so prepared without danger to their peers.

In the city, guns could have only two purposes–threat or protection. Today in cities where specialization reigns, only the police are supposed to protect. There is no place for private gun ownership in the minds of many city dwellers.

Such issues define our differences. There seems to be no solution in sight.

But perhaps a solution comes in making our lives more complex.

We are a long way from building our own houses, growing our own food, and making our own clothes.

But learning how to do some of the things that make us more independent can make us more responsible, more independent people. We can produce again rather than simply consume.

And by learning production ourselves, we pass along production, and with it responsibility, self-sufficiency, and meaning to the young.

Doing so can help us understand each other. Doing so can help us help each other. Doing so may make all the difference for someone disenchanted with a plastic trinket of meaningless comfort.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Nancy E. Head’s Restoring the Shattered is out in paperback! Get your copy here!

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you credit the author.

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the entities I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Finding Each Other Again

“People use drugs, legal and illegal, because their lives are intolerably painful or dull. They hate their work and find no rest in their leisure. They are estranged from their families and their neighbors. It should tell us something that in healthy societies drug use is celebrative, convivial, and occasional, whereas among us it is lonely, shameful, and addictive. We need drugs, apparently, because we have lost each other.” 

Wendell Berry

I saw a commercial recently that showed people making bets on their phones. Not just on which team will win the game–but on whether the quarterback will complete his next pass–which team will score next.

You can bet on anything. And you can’t lose the first bet. Risk-free! But many people will find it difficult to stop after just one try. The commercial’s sponsor is counting on it.

Some drugs are more than chemicals we take into our bodies.

Some are experiences that release chemicals in our brains–chemicals we want to feel again.

The desire becomes a compulsion that is addiction.

For some, it’s food. For others, the images of pornography. Or that thrill of winning a bet. Or an actual chemical teeming through our lungs or veins into our brain.

We act alone. We can’t let others know our secret shame–what we consume, bodily or visually. What we do with the rent money.

And even if we act with others, the result is the same. We find ourselves alone in our satisfaction–and then in our dissatisfaction and shame.

We believe we can find satisfaction by rearranging the chemicals inside ourselves.

What’s changed is that society more than ever allows us to embrace whoever we decide we are or want to be–without moral limitations.

Opportunities to be whatever we want are both growing and shrinking.

They are shrinking in that it is more difficult to find work that we find meaningful. Part of that is that we have lost the sense that honorable work is meaningful even if we don’t enjoy it.

On the other hand, the notion grows that our opportunities to act on our impulses should be limitless. We can be who we want to be in our desires. Opportunities to choose any form of expression–especially sexually– abound.

But that free expression doesn’t provide the meaning and significance we seek. It backfires.

Someone in my area went to a local agency to ask for help with his pornography obsession.

He heard this response: “It’s normal to look at porn.”

He knew he had a problem. He acknowledged the problem. He was asking for help with his problem.

Imagine going to an AA meeting and hearing, “But it’s normal to drink. Go ahead.”

More of us find our lives “intolerably painful or dull” today.

More of us seek a life beyond pain and dullness and manipulations of our brain that further remove us from reality.

Social agencies that buy into the lies of unreality as a balm for the soul are not the solution.

The Church has the solution.

Are we prepared to deliver it to the hurting?

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Nancy E. Head’s Restoring the Shattered is out in paperback! Get your copy here!

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you credit the author.

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the entities I have mentioned. Restoring the Shattered is published through Morgan James Publishing with whom I do share a material connection. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Mountains, Mallo Cups, and Train Whistles

“When a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another. . . How can they know one another if they have not learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover, they fear one another. And this is our predicament now.” (Wendell Berry, qtd. by Rod Dreher)

When I wake up in my brother’s house, eight counties away from my home, the sound of train whistles reminds me of home. But those rails are so close, the sound so much louder, I know I’m not home. An early morning visit to the deck off his dining room confirms the conclusion. No mountains. A low horizon.

My older brothers were the adventurers. The eldest did a stint in the navy that took him to the Mediterranean. He settled in Texas. My next brother only moved across those eight counties that separate us.

I have traveled. But my zip code never changed.  My residence remained where the mountain ridges surround me, the train whistles serenade me as they have since my birth, and the Mallo Cups are as fresh as fresh can be because the Boyer factory is right in town.

I can’t say I made the better choice. They journeyed with opportunity. My roots grew deeper. But my brothers planted roots too. They became part of new communities. It isn’t just the sights, flavors, and sounds of home. It’s community. It’s people.

Americans are famous for being movers. Horace Greeley admonished the adventurous to “Go west!”  And westward we turned. But today most of us stay put. Fifty-four percent of us live near the place where we grew up.

Thirty-five percent of us left and then came back.

Rod Dreher is one who came back. The author had hit the big time in large northeastern cities. But after his sister died from cancer, home beckoned to him. He penned The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, chronicling her life and death as well as his journeys away from home and back.

But Dreher had another book to write. Coming home was not what he hoped. In How Dante Can Save Your Life, he recounts that the return from his odyssey did not produce the peace he sought but instead brought him a stress-related illness.

Dreher found peace partly through the pages of Dante’s journey through the eternal regions. But even more important, resolution came through the relationships that developed through his faith in Christ. Companions walked with him through the stress and illness to eventual healing and wholeness.

He told his sister’s story. He shared his own. He learned the stories of others. He found those he could trust. And those who could trust him.
Dreher says, “I came back to Louisiana looking for my family and my home. I found God and this church” (278).

Dreher traded in his professional quest for a personal one. He ended up on a journey he did not foresee. He did not get what he hoped to find.

What he got was so much more.


Restoring the Shattered: Illustrating Christ’s Love Through the Church in One Accord now available in e-version on Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Photo Credit: Joe Calzaretta, Blue Knob Mountain, Central Pennsylvania

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you credit the author.

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the entities I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”