‘Meaning is given to us’

Tim DeChristopher and Wendell Berry sat down for a conversation last summer that’s available from Orion Magazine. I’m excerpting portions of that conversation below to give a shorter sense of it, but it’s worth reading in its fullness:

WB: In 1965, my friend Gurney Norman gave me my first look at a strip-mining operation. That’s nearly fifty-five years ago, isn’t it? So there I stood on the mountain behind Hardburly, Kentucky, and I saw the bulldozer go in on a wooded mountainside, and throw loose the whole surface of the world. I found that hard to bear. That brought me to something like defeat. How could a human being do that? How could anybody take a machine and destroy the world with it?

As often in my life, I got a book just when I needed it. A friend sent me Georges Bernanos’s Last Essays from the years just after World War II. What disturbed him was not the military humiliation of his country, of France. And he was not appeased or heartened by the Allied victory. What most impressed him, and deeply, deeply disturbed him, was the emergence out of that war of what he called “machine civilization.” He anticipated that the machine would make humankind over in its image.

TD: This is what Bill [McKibben]’s talking about in Falter — we have reached a new level of that.

WB: We’re always at a new level of that. Hitler and Hiroshima reached a new level of that. If humankind can make a weapon, a machine that can destroy not only all the other machines, but us too — I don’t see how climate change can ante up any higher than that.

TD: The level of machine control of human beings now is not bigger than that, it’s not a bigger, more catastrophic, explosive end, but it’s more insidious in so many ways. We’re not just blowing things apart; we’re changing our own DNA in a way that makes human existence meaningless.

WB: I don’t think humans have any power over meaning. Meaning is given to us. We can’t make meaning.

TD: I don’t agree with that. We make meaning all the time.

WB: The ability of humans even to discover meaning is very limited. They counterfeit meaning all the time. …

TD: What is localism’s answer to refugees? To those whose homeland is not livable anymore? Whether that place is underwater, has turned to desert, was destroyed by American imperialism and our desire for more resources?

WB: You’ve won this argument. The argument for despair is impenetrable, it’s invulnerable. You got all the cards. You got the statistics, the science, the projections on your side. But then we’re still just sitting here with our hands hanging down, not doing anything.

One of the characteristics of the machine civilization is determinism. You’ll find plenty of people who’ll tell you there’s nothing you can do, it’s inevitable. You can’t make an organization to refute that; you’ve got to do it yourself. You’ve got to cleanse that mess out of your heart. Among our own people, the only communities who’ve done that have been the Amish. Their communities have survived. We were living very much like them when I was a boy here… This county here was full of self-employed people, full of people who were living without bosses. There were a lot more people going to church here then than now, and I’m sure they were all hearing, from time to time, Jesus’s two laws: love God and love your neighbor. And the difference between us and the Amish is that they took that law as an economic imperative. If you love your neighbor, you can’t replace your neighbor with a machine. And that so far has worked for them. But the key to it is love. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to like your neighbor.  It means that you know what the commitment to love requires of you, and you’re going to keep the commitment. …

WB: … I got a letter from a woman, she talked about self-creation and autonomy. She wanted to know why her relative gave up his job and went home to help his dad farm. I suggested that they might have loved each other. That they might have loved their ranch. But then I said, “You were born into dependence and you’re going to die in it.”

TD: There’s been such a cultural trend that that father who said, Come home, I need you — to even say that is an expression of failure. To need other people is increasingly defined as failure, when that’s the fabric that holds us together. It’s such a gift for that son, to be needed.

Leaving Longlea

The silent retreat has ended and I’m heading back to Washington after a few great days in what had been a new part of Virginia to me. It’s overcast, chilly, and damp as we head back to the city and to the prospect that the virus will shut down most or all of daily life for some period of time. Already heading into this weekend, many things were being canceled. For that reason, I’m doubly glad this retreat went ahead as planned as something like a gift for whatever’s to come.

Cal Newport writes on Plato’s Phaedrus and wisdom for pandemics:

One of the more profound representations of the soul in the Western Canon is the Chariot Allegory from Plato’s Phaedrus dialogue

“[T]he charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character.”

As elaborated by the character of Socrates in the dialogue, the charioteer represents our soul’s reasoned pursuit to cultivate a worthy life. This task requires the charioteer to allow the noble steed, representing our moral intuitions, to lead the way, while preventing its ignoble partner, representing our base instincts, from drawing the soul off course. …

There is, I propose, a simple two-part solution to this state of affairs.

First, check one national and one local new source each morning. Then — and this is the important part — don’t check any other news for the rest of the day. Presumably, time sensitive updates that affect you directly will arrive by email, or phone, or text.

This will be really hard, especially given the way we’ve been trained by social media companies over the past decade to view our phone as a psychological pacifier.

Which brings me to the second part of the solution: distract yourself with value-driven action; lots of action. Serve your community, serve your kids, serve yourself (both body and mind), produce good work. Try to fit in a few moments of forced gratitude, just to keep those particular circuits active.

More Longlea scenes

A lot of time for prayer, spiritual reflection, and silent fraternity. I don’t have many words to share here in these days, but I can share some scenes from this time.

Fr. Jesus Urteaga’s “Bright and Cheerful Homes” is worth picking up. Here’s the description:

The undertaking I want to speak to you about is an enormous one: rearing your family. I am much more concerned about your home than about whatever bad or dangerous atmosphere you may find in the street. I am much more worried about the way of life your children will learn in your home, following your example, seeing you live your life, than I am about anything they may learn from the faithlessness and faults of other people. Here is a really important question: Are you giving them that “something”—and it is a very great something—that they must have if they are to live truly Christian lives?

And you can download it here.

At Longlea

I’m at Longlea Conference Center near Culpeper, Virginia for a retreat. We started last night and will continue through Sunday. It’s my first silent retreat. I’m glad to be here.

It’s beautiful out, for March especially. I’m spending stretches of the afternoon in the garden reading Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary.

COVID-19 and ‘sensible and human things’

President Trump delivered an Oval Office address last night on the COVID-19 virus and its impact on the nation. I’m sure there will be more in the days and weeks to come. Since last writing on this last week, it seems as if most major corporations have shifted their workforce to a posture of either encouraged or mandatory remote work. We met at Americans United for Life late last week and determined to go remote as of this past Monday and I think we’ve maintained a better institutional stride because we acted early than some places I’m seeing that are just starting to come to grips with the potential impact of this virus.

I’m leaving Washington tonight for a retreat in rural Virginia, about 90 minutes west of the city. I’ll be there through Sunday late afternoon and am looking forward to making this retreat—my first in five (too many!) years—and being away from the city and the news. I’ll plan to continue working from Georgetown when I get back depending on how the virus develops.

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Apropos of the psychic trauma this Wuhan pandemic is inflicting, here’s a passage from C.S. Lewis from 1948 that’s been making the rounds:

On Living in an Atomic Age

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors: anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made, and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

Proactive school closures and pandemics

As the COVID-19 virus dominates the news this week, many American colleges and universities are sending students home for either a few weeks or for the remainder of the semester. Science offers perspective on why this works:

Proactive school closures—closing schools before there’s a case there—have been shown to be one of the most powerful nonpharmaceutical interventions that we can deploy. Proactive school closures work like reactive school closures not just because they get the children, the little vectors, removed from circulation. It’s not just about keeping the kids safe. It’s keeping the whole community safe. When you close the schools, you reduce the mixing of the adults—parents dropping off at the school, the teachers being present. When you close the schools, you effectively require the parents to stay home.

There was a wonderful paper published that analyzed data regarding the Spanish flu in 1918, examining proactive versus reactive school closures. When did [regional] authorities close the schools relative to when the epidemic was spiking? What they found was that proactive school closing saved substantial numbers of lives. St. Louis closed the schools about a day in advance of the epidemic spiking, for 143 days. Pittsburgh closed 7 days after the peak and only for 53 days. And the death rate for the epidemic in St. Louis was roughly one-third as high as in Pittsburgh. These things work.

As with so many other aspects of this unplanned social experiment, it will be interesting to see what long term impact these closures/shifts to online instruction have on education from kindergarten through to colleges and universities. It’s not quite homeschooling, but it’s the closest many Americans might come to ever considering viable alternatives to our largely broken government schools models of instruction, and the secondary functions of dual earner lifestyle/daycare support that they tend to provide.

Natural beauty in the full vitality of youth

“How does the experience of unforgettable natural beauty in the full vitality of youth affect the moral and spiritual life that follows?” Glenn Arbery asks Wordworth’s question from Tintern Abbey:

Wordsworth looks to nature itself as a teacher; at Wyoming Catholic, we speak of nature as “God’s first book.” The powers implicit in natural forms impress themselves upon the imagination, and Wordsworth reflects, at the age of 28, on what this influence feels like in his own life:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration: —feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.

His original experience of Tintern Abbey—like the first, “magical” view of a particular mountain scene that one of the juniors described in class this week—passed without deliberate effort into his memory, and the memory has been responsible for “sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart” that revive him and give him restored hope in his hours of weariness. But the effect does not stop there. He thinks that this gift of nature has made him morally better than he might have been. Why? Because the pleasure he took in such beauty has worked against meanness or envy and disposed him to “little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.” Call these experiences, if you will, the natural underpinnings of charity.

How does nature—and more specifically, natural beauty—move within us and move us after we encounter it? A great life could be built simply by considering this question and attempting to answer it in the place one chooses to live, the sort of home one chooses to craft, and the sort of marriage and family one fosters.

The backwards law

After work yesterday I took the Metro with two colleagues home from Farragut West to Rosslyn, mainly so we could continue a conversation we had started and partly because I’m tired of my walk home along M Street. Heading to Rosslyn and walking home across the Key Bridge gave me this:

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How great are the great things in our lives that we don’t need to pursue but simply recognize and enjoy.  Alan Watts wrote about this and Mark Manson riffs on it:

Wanting a positive experience is a negative experience; accepting negative experience is a positive experience. It’s what the philosopher Alan Watts used to refer to as “the backwards law”—the idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place. The more you desperately want to be rich, the more poor and unworthy you feel, regardless of how much money you actually make. The more you desperately want to be sexy and desired, the uglier you come to see yourself, regardless of your actual physical appearance. The more you desperately want to be happy and loved, the lonelier and more afraid you become, regardless of those who surround you. The more you want to be spiritually enlightened, the more self-centered and shallow you become in trying to get there.

Realize that you need to forgive someone

Bishop Robert Barron’s Lenten Gospel Reflection for today is very meaningful to me in this season. I’m heading to the Catholic Information Center for Mass today.

Matthew 5:20-26

Friends, in today’s Gospel Jesus commands us to be reconciled with one another. I want to say something about the role of forgiveness in repairing our broken relationships.

When you are at worship and realize that you need to forgive someone (or be forgiven by someone), go and do it. Go get reconciled, then come back. It’s like a rule of physics. There is something hidden in the deep mystery of God, and I can’t fully explicate it. Somehow, if there is a lack of forgiveness in you, it blocks the movement of God in you. Perhaps it’s simply because God is love, and so whatever is opposed to love in us blocks the flow of God’s power and God’s life.

One reason we do not forgive is that we feel that some injustice has been done to us, and we resent it. A good cure for this feeling is to kneel before the cross of Jesus. What do you see there? The innocent Son of God nailed to the cross—the ultimate injustice. What does he do? He forgives his persecutors. Meditate on that, and your sense of being treated unjustly will fade away.

Reflect: Is there a lack of forgiveness in you somewhere? Kneel before the cross of Jesus often during Lent and see what happens.

Adopting an appreciative attitude

Daniel Chambliss in The Mundanity of Excellence, which I came across through James Clear’s newsletter:

At the higher levels of competitive swimming, something like an inversion of attitude takes place. The very features of the sport that the ‘C’ swimmer finds unpleasant, the top level swimmer enjoys. What others see as boring—swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say—they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. They enjoy hard practices, look forward to difficult competitions, try to set difficult goals. Coming into the 5:30 A.M. practices at Mission Viejo, many of the swimmers were lively, laughing, talking, enjoying themselves, perhaps appreciating the fact that most people would positively hate doing it. It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.

Alongside attitude, Chambliss identifies discipline and technique as key factors of excellence.