Reading Wendell Berry has helped me finally begin to grasp the challenges I face. It’s an astounding experience of, “Ah! That’s why so many things I want seem so far away!”
Here are a few snippets from an amazing chapter titled, “The Body and the Earth” in his book The Unsettling of America.
“The modern urban-industrial society is based on a series of radical disconnections between body and soul, husband and wife, marriage and community, community and the earth… Together, these disconnections add up to a condition of critical ill health, which we suffer in common… Our economy is based on this disease.”
We are “in exile from the communion of men and women, which is [our] deepest connection with the communion of all creatures.”
“Without the household—not just as a unifying ideal, but as a practical circumstance of mutual dependence and obligation, requiring skill, moral discipline and work—husband and wife find it less and less possible to imagine and enact their marriage.”
One thing especially comes to the fore in these reflections: the evisceration of our home-life has removed the natural center of human existence. As a result, we often experience things as caving-in on us.
I think what most strikes me is the assertion that the ‘communion of men and women’ is our ‘deepest connection with the communion of all creatures.’ I take this to mean: marriage naturally situated in a vibrant, productive home is precisely the context for the other basic connections we so crave. In short, undermining the household really does undermine everything else. Those connections that most constitute a thriving human life find their seedbed, growth, and sure support in the connection of husband and wife in a rich home life–something that has become largely a thing of the past.
So we have a serious problem. Putting back the pieces might require more than first meets the eye. Berry writes, “Intellectually, we know that these patterns of interdependence exist; we understand them better now perhaps than ever before; yet modern social and cultural patterns contradict them and make it difficult or impossible to honor them in practice.” In one of the opening quotations above Berry asserts that our very economy is based on the disconnections that are our disease and downfall. This means that current ‘economic realities’ push us where we don’t want to go: such as away from ordinary, traditional practices of work and leisure in our homes.
One thing is sure. Healing will require our being intentional; we must begin with an honest assessment of where we stand, as well as where we want to go.
But there is reason for hope. “Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health. And what our society does its best to disguise from us is how ordinary, how commonly attainable, health is.” Once then we see through the fog, we can discover how what we so desire is after all still attainable.
“As the connections have been broken by the fragmentation and isolation of work, they can be restored by restoring the wholeness of work.” This is an encouraging piece of wisdom! Understanding how we got here is the key to getting us out. And central in the evisceration of our home-life was the exodus of consistent, meaningful work. At least then the nature of our task becomes clearer. We must re-establish patterns of good work in our homes. Such work is not just “an exterior brace or prop,” but rather, “It IS living, and a way of living.” And more: “Work is the health of love. To last, love must enflesh itself in the materiality of the world—produce food, shelter, warmth or shade, surround itself with careful acts, well-made things.” Honestly, this last line makes the hair on my back stand on end.
This is in our reach. And, in view of Berry’s line of reasoning, I respectfully suggest that it is not optional. Some form of life-giving, body-utilizing, soul-enhancing, and person-connecting work is the path to renewal. And it will be a joyful even if hard-won path.
It need not be agricultural. But such work is a kind of archetype, and so is well worth careful consideration. Commenting on the Odyssey, so foundational in Western civilization, Berry recounts the amazing scene where Odysseus is finally reunited with his father. The old king, having scant hope of ever seeing his son again, had turned to the life of a peasant. What an image we are given: When his son finds him, the old man is caring for a young tree. Berry notes, “In a time of disorder he has returned to the care of the earth, the foundation of life and hope.” Such work might also be for us, not just a last resort, but a bold step toward healing and the fulness of life we so crave, starting in our homes. ~ ~ ~
Here’s a SHORT VIDEO to help us think about WORK, starting in our HOMES:
And here’s a little seasonal treat:
Husband, father, and professor of Philosophy. LifeCraft springs from one conviction: there is an ancient wisdom about how to live the good life in our homes, with our families; and it is worth our time to hearken to it. Let’s rediscover it together. Learn more.