Home, household, and family life

I spent time in Old Town, Alexandria on Sunday afternoon, which is where I took this photo. I really like little scenes like this, and wonder how often passersby think on what happens above all of the little storefronts—the lives of those unfolding in little apartments, the second floor storerooms for ground floor retailers, the abandoned spaces above some shops, etc. It also reminded me of two pieces from from John Cuddeback that I had read last month. The first is Cuddeback on Aristotle and on a deep aesthetic purpose of home:

Aristotle suggests that the beauty of our home is a way that we serve those around us. And he goes further: building for permanence is an aspect of building for beauty. Perhaps this is one reason that there is always something about a stone house.

Many of us are not in the position to build a new home; and among those that are, financial considerations will often be a real limiting factor in what we can do. Yet it seems Aristotle has given us a special perspective, one from which to appreciate styles that endure, and materials and construction that endure. For the sake of beauty, and for the sake of others, as well as for ourselves.

Regardless of our financial situation we can bear in mind this wonderful, even if challenging aspect of what our houses can be and can mean, right down to their furnishings.

Cuddeback also writes separately in First Things on “reclaiming the household”:

Not long ago, the household was a context of daily life. The arts that provided for the material needs of human life were largely home arts, practiced, developed, and passed on within the four walls, or at least in the immediate ambit of the home. Food, clothing, shelter, as well as nonessential items that gave some embellishment to life, were commonly the fruit of the work of household members, often produced with an eye for beauty as well as utility. This carried into the industrial era. For decades, Singer sold sewing machines to housewives, who bought patterns and made their own clothes. Men built backyard toolsheds. Grandparents put up raspberry jams in Mason jars.

The household involves more than just work. Porch times, lawn times, and by-the-fire times punctuated the more serious endeavors, and were often occasions of leisurely work, too, such as carving, fine needlework, and other hobbies. Meals called for setting aside work, as of course did prayer. These habits were times of mutual presence. To a great extent, family life meant being with at least some other members of the household for most of the day.

Recounting these things, once taken for granted, highlights how remote a household is from the home life of today. Even those who intentionally seek to have a “traditional” family life, in fact, often lack the ability to comprehend the reality of a household that is not simply “traditional,” but ancient and profoundly human. They set out to start a family in a virtual vacuum. The husband and father usually sallies forth to a remote job, and the wife and mother attempts to manage the day-to-day work of child-rearing—a project the real nature of which is elusive—while wondering what place she too might have “out there.” Intangible pressures on parents and children seem inexorably to draw their attention and their time to activities outside of the home. Junior gets taken to soccer practice. Mom goes to a spin class.

A renewal of family life will require a renewal of the household, especially as a place of shared work and a center of shared experience and belonging. We are missing out on truly human living because we fail to live together. …

Because the need to restore households is not separable or even really distinct from the effort to protect or restore families, those concerned with the plight of the family today undermine their efforts when they lose sight of the household. Not thinking in terms of households misconstrues both the family and the broader societies to which it belongs.

I’ve been thinking about the physical structure of American communities for a few years now, particularly in the context of what a more life-affirming and more human American society might look like. That is, how much of the badness and error in our politics is a result of the physically and structurally deficient nature of how we’ve built both our towns and neighborhoods as well as our daily family lives?

Raising the aspirations of others

Tyler Cowen writes that one of the best gifts you can give is raising the aspirations of those around you:

Yesterday I had lunch with a former Ph.D student of mine, who is now highly successful and tenured at a very good school. I was reminded that, over twenty years ago, I was Graduate Director of Admissions. One of my favorite strategies was to take strong candidates who applied for Masters and also offer them Ph.D admissions, suggesting they might to do the latter. My lunch partner was a beneficiary of this de facto policy.

At least two of our very best students went down this route. Ex ante, neither realized that it was common simply to apply straight to a Ph.D program, skipping over the Masters. I believe this is now better known, but the point is this.

At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind. It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous.

This rings true, based on my own experiences so far. Fortunate to have had many men and women do this for me in various ways. When we stay silent about what those around us are capable of doing, I think it’s probably true that that silence “takes something out of the fabric of what should’ve been“.

Rilke on love and relationships

Maria Popova writes on Rainer Maria Rilke and the contrasting pulls “of autonomy and togetherness” that characterize so many healthy relationships. Rilke writes to a young correspondent:

I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. For, if it lies in the nature of indifference and of the crowd to recognize no solitude, then love and friendship are there for the purpose of continually providing the opportunity for solitude. And only those are the true sharings which rhythmically interrupt periods of deep isolation.

And Rilke writes elsewhere on healthy togetherness and boundaries, where he movingly expands on the idea of our “willing to stand guard over the solitude” of the other, and in so doing balance between the two poles of love, autonomy and forfeiture.

It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or both of his fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!

Therefore this too must be the standard for rejection or choice: whether one is willing to stand guard over the solitude of a person and whether one is inclined to set this same person at the gate of one’s own solitude, of which he learns only through that which steps, festively clothed, out of the great darkness.

And on properly giving of oneself, and on having a self to give:

All companionship can consist only in the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes, whereas everything that one is wont to call giving oneself is by nature harmful to companionship: for when a person abandons himself, he is no longer anything, and when two people both give themselves up in order to come close to each other, there is no longer any ground beneath them and their being together is a continual falling… Once there is disunity between them, the confusion grows with every day; neither of the two has anything unbroken, pure, and unspoiled about him any longer… They who wanted to do each other good are now handling one another in an imperious and intolerant manner, and in the struggle somehow to get out of their untenable and unbearable state of confusion, they commit the greatest fault that can happen to human relationships: they become impatient. …

We’re think of ourselves as romantics, but we seem to know little about love.

Deleting social media accounts

Jaron Lanier’s “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts” is worth reading as an introduction to the problem of behavior-manipulating internet platforms. I’m more looking forward to Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism” book coming out sometime next year, because I suspect it might provide a less extreme response to the problem of excessive social content creation and consumption and attendant advertising and user manipulation. In any event, here’s a bit from Lanier sharing some background on his thesis:

It might not seem like it at first, but I’m an optimist. I don’t think we have to throw the whole digital world away. But there is one particular hi-tech thing that is toxic even in small quantities.

The issue isn’t only that internet users are crammed into environments that can bring out the worst in us, or that so much power has concentrated into a tiny number of hands that control giant cloud computers. A bigger problem is that we are all carrying around devices that are suitable for mass behaviour modification. For example, with old-fashioned advertising, you could measure whether a product did better after an ad was run, but now companies are measuring whether individuals change their behaviours as they browse, and the feeds for each person are constantly tweaked to get the desired result. In short, your behaviour has been turned into a product – and corporate and political clients are lining up to modify it.

Finally, we can draw a circle around the real danger we face. If we could just get rid of the deleterious business model, then the underlying technology might not be so bad.

Some have compared social media to the tobacco industry, but I will not. The better analogy is paint that contains lead. When it became undeniable that lead was harmful, no one declared that houses should never be painted again. Instead, after pressure and legislation, lead-free paints became the new standard. …

Seems like a good moment to coin an acronym, so how about “Behaviours of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent”? Bummer.

Bummer is a machine, a statistical machine that lives in the computing clouds. Since its influence is statistical, the menace is a little like climate change. You can’t say climate change is responsible for a particular storm, flood, or drought, but you can say it changes the odds that they’ll happen. In the longer term, the most horrible stuff like sea level rise and the need to relocate most people and find new sources of food would be attributable to climate change, but by then the argument would have been lost.

Similarly, I can’t prove that any particular person has been made worse by Bummer, nor can I prove that any particular degradation of our society would not have happened anyway. There’s no certain way to know if it has changed your behaviour, but if you use Bummer platforms, you’ve probably been changed at least a little.

While we can’t know what details in our world would be different without Bummer, we can know about the big picture. Like climate change, it will lead us into hell if we don’t self-correct.

“It might sound like a contradiction at first, but,” Lanier writes at one point, “collective processes make the best sense when participants are acting as individuals.” This syncs with something I read years ago, which put forward the idea that referring to the public (individuals collectively) as “the masses” is basically derogatory, because it reduces individuals to mass behavior rather than focusing on (and seeking to elevate) individual experience, goodness, etc.

I deleted my Snapchat account earlier this summer, and deactivated my Facebook account a few weeks ago.

Literary societies

I recently came across Lawrence Biemiller’s March 1997 profile of two Lancaster, Pennsylvania college literary societies. Biemiller’s piece appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I’m excerpting some of it below.

In the 19th century, many American colleges brilliantly combined the humanities (liberal arts) with the mechanical-industrial (servile arts) to create a new form of education meant to be accessible to any young person—not only the elite that the Ivy League institutions had long catered to. What’s less well known is the extent to which young people themselves often led the way in creating, shaping, and really breathing life into this new model. Biemiller’s piece tells some of that story as it related to Franklin & Marshall College:

Generations of Students Learned Oratory and Debate in 2 Literary Societies

Lancaster, PA. In the Goethean Literary Society’s first formal debate, in June of 1835, students argued the question, “Ought imprisonment for debt to be abolished?” The debate took place in York, Pa., at what was then called the High School of the Theological Seminary of the German Reformed Church. The society’s minutes record that the question “was decided in favor of the negative both as to the merits of the arguments and those of the question.” Afterward the members chose a topic for the following week’s discussion: “Has not the civilization of mankind been as much affected by the influence of the fair Sex as by any other cause whatever?”

So began an extraordinary run of debates and orations that continued on three different campuses for more than a hundred years, from Andrew Jackson’s Presidency to Dwight Eisenhower’s. Along with its twin sister, the Diagnothian Literary Society, the Goethean Society prospered as the “high school” moved to Mercersburg and changed its name to Marshall College. At weekly meetings the societies’ members delivered speeches and poems and argued the issues of the day, from whether women should hold public office and whether the Roman Catholic Church was “an enemy to liberty” to whether man “is the creator of his own destiny.”

Both societies assembled libraries and built Greek-revival meeting halls. There they met for hours each Saturday morning, mixing parliamentary procedure with splashes of ritual and secrecy and with floods of declamation. In January and February of 1842, for example, the Goetheans addressed a range of issues. “Would it be beneficial for the United States to admit Texas to the Union?” “Is England justified in carrying on war against China?” “Would it promote the interests of the United States to elect Henry Clay, President?” The minutes for February 23 add a contemporary-sounding note: “A Resolution was offered by Geo. L. Staley, prohibiting the chewing of Tobacco in Society on the ground of its disrespect and insult to the dignity of Society.” The resolution failed, but “Mr. Brewer then moved a vote of censure to Mr. Staley for presuming to offer such a resolution.” It, too, failed, and the members moved on to choosing the next question for debate: “Would it be beneficial for the Northern and Southern States, if they were peaceably disunited?”

The two societies continued to thrive after Marshall merged with Franklin College in 1853. The new institution, Franklin and Marshall, commissioned a Gothic-revival building with a soaring tower here in Lancaster; the literary societies put up matching halls, one on either side. The halls had first-floor rooms for the societies’ libraries—larger than the college’s—and also rooms for their “cabinets,” or museums. Upstairs were the spacious meeting rooms, frescoed by local artists. The college’s curriculum was then centered on classical texts, history, and mathematics, but the societies offered students opportunities to practice writing and public speaking and to consider subjects from politics to the nature of mankind.

In those years orators and debaters were judged more on composition and delivery than on content. Henry Kyd Douglas, a Diagnothian who attended the college in the 1850s, reported in his diary on speeches at the society’s programs: “…5th Oration, J. B. Tredwell on ‘The Dawn of a New Era.’ This was nicely written and nicely spoken. Jim is a pleasant speaker but has not enough animation. 6th Oration, ‘Christian Martyrdom,’ by J. M. Mickly. This was a first rate speech and although he did well last year, he has made quite an improvement. His production gave evidence of thought…” Douglas’s own oration that day—May 28, 1858—was titled “Tombs of the Illustrious Dead,” and it was well received. “I never saw such an abundance of bouquets,” he wrote. “I got 12, and Mr. Tredwell even more. They came in showers.”

The few orations that survive are more interesting as samples of 19th-century writing than because they offer insights into their authors’ lives; even the poems are almost entirely impersonal. The topics are general and often grand: “Marriage,” “Justice,” “The Past Character and Recent Prospects of Pennsylvanians.” The prose is confident. …

The Goetheans, whose records are more complete, elected and received acceptance letters from John James Audubon, James Buchanan, Samuel T. Clemens, Grover Cleveland, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Ulysses S. Grant, Washington Irving, Thomas Mann, Jean Sibelius, and Daniel Webster, among others. …

The museum curator noted the acquisition of a tortoise shell, a bottled snake, a rock from “a cave in Minnesota territory,” and “a specimen of peacock coal, beautifully colored.” The curator added that Professor Agassiz, as yet, has given us no information concerning the gar-fishes he borrowed from us several years ago.” The corresponding secretary, the curator added, had written to the professor “in a style not to be mistaken.”

The literary societies at F&M outlived most, remaining active into the 1950s. Like societies at Davidson College and Princeton University, they left behind handsome halls that still carry their names, perhaps reminding current students of the charge with Edmund Eck opened an oration titled “Who Are College Students?” It begins beautifully: “We are the embryo of stars, in the process of development, which are to illuminate the dark world when those before us have disappeared.”

This caught my attention because of Penn State’s experience with the Washington and Cresson Literary Societies. These were forerunners of both Penn State’s fraternity and sorority systems, and Penn State’s library, and much like Franklin & Marshall’s societies these provided the basis for bringing many young people together to form a critical and “unplanned” part of their collegiate experience.

Shifting from tasks to feelings

Eli J. Finkel, in his “All or Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work,” highlights an under appreciated shift in marriage in the 20th century:

In the two centuries preceding the Industrial Revolution, developments in political theory, the social contract, Enlightenment thinking, the freedom to use one’s intelligence, gender relations (separate spheres), and romantic beliefs (the primary of authentic emotional experience), set the stage for a new martial ideal. This ideal shifted the basis of marriage from sharing tasks to sharing feelings

The older view that wives and husbands were workmates gave way to the idea that they were soulmates. It’s easy to see why many Americans preferred this new ideal to the more impersonal, patriarchal ideal it replaced. But ideals and behaviors are not the same thing. And the transition from the pragmatic ideal to the love-based ideal was slow. As long as American society was predominantly agricultural, with the individual farmhouse serving as the primary unit of production, it was virtually impossible to complete the transition. There were too many other, more essential, demands on the relationship. However, it wouldn’t take long for industrialization and urbanization to crush the pragmatic model of marriage. These forces sharply increased the proportion of houses that subsisted on wage labor rather than farming and domestic production. In doing so, they created a social and economic context well suited to the ideology of separate spheres. They also reduced restrictions on individual freedoms, and people used these freedoms to marry for love.

It’s in this sense, Finkel writes elsewhere, that contemporary marriages far less practically speaking than marriages of the past, and far more than marriages of the past in the sense of very heightened expectations of meaning and fulfillment.

Disney and Springsteen as misfits

Dan Pallotta offers a perspective on creativity. He identifies vulnerability and the willingness to be a misfit as two traits of visionaries:

Imagine Walt Disney at the age of nineteen. His uncle asks him what he plans to do with his life, and he pulls out a drawing of a mouse and says, “I think this has a lot of potential.”

Or Springsteen. In a concert he once told the story of how he and his dad used to go at it—how his father hated his guitar. Late one night, Springsteen came home to find his father waiting up for him in the kitchen. His father asked him what he thought he was doing with himself. “And the worst part about it,” Springsteen says, “was I never knew how to explain it to him.” How does he tell his father, “I’m going to be Bruce Springsteen?”

Someone interviewed me a few months back for an entrepreneurship project, and he mentioned that in his conversations the thing that stood out most was the willingness of great entrepreneurs to be vulnerable. It’s not the first association you’d make with an entrepreneur. Words like “driven,” “ambitious,” and “persistent” usually come to mind. But the moment he said it I knew he’d hit the nail on the head.

Vulnerability. It is the most poignant quality in every entrepreneur I know.

There’s a misfit in each of us, and it’s the most delicate, precious thing that we have. Sadly, most people make it their life’s mission to hide it, to cover it over in the same clothes, the same work, the same “regurgitations,” as Thomas Merton wrote, as everyone else. This virus of homogenization has infected the landscape. Our backdrop in real life now mimics the scenery repetition you’d see in a Fred Flintstone cartoon as he drove down the street. But now it’s Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks; Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks; Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks.

Ironic that all those enterprises were begun by entrepreneurs trying to do something different. And poignant that in the absence of Walt Disney himself, the Walt Disney Company just keeps building more Disneylands.

I used to visit the merry-go-round in Griffith Park in Los Angeles where Disney once took his daughters, asking himself, “Is this all there is? There has to be a better place to take my children.” And the rest is history. The great entrepreneur — the entrepreneur who really changes things — is the one who, in 2010, goes to Disneyland and asks the same question: “Is this all there is?” And the new world she or he will create as a result of that audacious inquiry is one that cannot possibly be conceived by people busy trying to fit into the world as it is.

To question the hegemony of merry-go-rounds — to actually care that there should be something more magnificent than a merry-go-round — is to be a misfit. I mean, who worries about these things?

“Vulnerability is the absence of cynicism,” writes Pallotta. “And the absence of cynicism is love.”

McSorley’s and wholeness

Maria Popova writes on wholeness, and the ways in which our intentior life lives in harmony (or not) with our public identity:

Where Walt Whitman once invited us to celebrate the glorious multitudes we each contain and to welcome the wonder that comes from discovering one another’s multitudes afresh, we now cling to our identity-fragments, using them as badges and badgering artillery in confronting the templated identity-fragments of others. (For instance, some of mine: woman, reader, immigrant, writer, queer, survivor of Communism.) Because no composite of fragments can contain, much less represent, all possible fragments, we end up drifting further and further from one another’s wholeness, abrading all sense of shared aspiration toward unbiased understanding. The censors of yore have been replaced by the “sensitivity readers” of today, fraying the fabric of freedom — of speech, even of thought — from opposite ends, but fraying it nonetheless. The safety of conformity to an old-guard mainstream has been supplanted by the safety of conformity to a new-order minority predicated on some fragment of identity, so that those within each new group (and sub-group, and sub-sub-group) are as harsh to judge and as fast to exclude “outsiders” (that is, those of unlike identity-fragments) from the conversation as the old mainstream once was in judging and excluding them. In our effort to liberate, we have ended up imprisoning — imprisoning ourselves in the fractal infinity of our ever-subdividing identities, imprisoning each other in our exponentially multiplying varieties of otherness.

This inversion of intent only fissures the social justice movement itself, so that people who are at bottom kindred-spirited — who share the most elemental values, who work from a common devotion to the same projects of justice and equality, who are paving parallel pathways to a nobler, fairer, more equitable world — end up disoriented by the suspicion that they might be on different sides of justice after all, merely because their particular fragments don’t happen to coincide perfectly. In consequence, despite our best intentions, we misconstrue and alienate each other more and more.

O’Donohue offers a gentle corrective: “Each one of us is the custodian of an inner world that we carry around with us. Now, other people can glimpse it from [its outer expressions]. But no one but you knows what your inner world is actually like, and no one can force you to reveal it until you actually tell them about it. That’s the whole mystery of writing and language and expression — that when you do say it, what others hear and what you intend and know are often totally different kinds of things.” …

Today, we seem to serve not as custodians of our inner worlds but as their terrified and terrible wardens, policing our own interiority along with that of others for any deviation from the proscribed identity-political correctness. And yet identity is exclusionary by definition — we are what remains after everything we are not. Even those remnants are not static and solid ground onto which to stake the flag of an immutable personhood but fluid currents in an ever-shifting, shoreless self — for, as Virginia Wolf memorably wrote, “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.” To liberate ourselves from the trap of identity, O’Donohue implies, requires not merely an awareness of but an active surrender to the transience that inheres in all of life and engenders its very richness:

“One of the most amazing recognitions of the human mind is that time passes. Everything that we experience somehow passes into a past invisible place: when you think of yesterday and the things that were troubling you and worrying you, and the intentions that you had and the people that you met, and you know you experienced them all, but when you look for them now, they are nowhere — they have vanished… It seems to me that our times are very concerned with experience, and that nowadays to hold a belief, to have a value, must be woven through the loom of one’s own experience, and that experience is the touchstone of integrity, verification and authenticity. And yet the destiny of every experience is that it will disappear.”

To come to terms with this — with the impermanence and mutability of our thoughts, our feelings, our values, our very cells — is to grasp the absurdity of clinging to any strand of identity with the certitude and self-righteousness undergirding identity politics. To reclaim the beauty of the multitudes we each contain, we must break free of the prison of our fragments and meet one another as whole persons full of wonder unblunted by identity-template and expectation.

I woke up in New York’s Financial District to the above in my inbox this morning, and thought it was an appropriate reflection on the topics of our interior life, wholeness, and the identity politics of our time, because I spent last night at McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village with Peter Atkinson:

McSorley’s is one of those places that stands outside of time, to a large degree—if you let it. It’s the sort of place where it’s still literally possible to almost meditate, if you want, in a public place. You’re surrounded by 163 years of history, real historical memory and the artifacts left behind by real people who stood in the same Ale House you’re standing in now. It’s custodians over the years have respected McSorley’s as they’ve inherited it, and not tried to make it more relevant, or to change it with changing times. What they’ve come into, they’ve passed along, unchanged in only the smallest and most necessary ways—no more live cats wandering the place, for instance, thanks to stricter New York health codes.

But McSorley’s seems to me to be an example of the sort of “wholeness” that Maria Popova writes on above, albeit in physical/place form rather than personal form. It is confidently what it is, and doesn’t explain itself or adjust itself to changing fashions for the sake of anyone’s affections. It has earned the love and returns of so many generations because it is authentic, meaning that it simply is what it is.

A place like McSorley’s might also just provide the context for a discovery of a renewed interior life, especially in the quiet mid-day hours of a Wednesday, for instance, when you can see the dust falling through the air with a burning stove fire nearby, and the warmth of generations seeming to envelope you in one of the few public places in the world that doesn’t seem to want anything from you, in particular, other than to sit and be for a while.

War and the ‘pleasure of agency’

Shadi Hamid writes on Omar El Akkad’s American War and asks, “what holds a society together in the absence of common ideas?” Excerpting:

During the war, dying, as Drew Gilpin Faust writes in her seminal history This Republic of Suffering, became an art, and Christianity was central to dying well. “It is work to die, to know how to approach and endure life’s last moments,” Faust writes. Christianity, already infused in daily life, became even more so as the death toll rose: “Redefined as eternal life, death was celebrated in mid-nineteenth-century America.” After the war, as the realities of defeat settled, there was inevitably the question of “why?” Was the fall of the Confederacy, suffering a significantly higher mortality rate than the north, a punishment from God?

Both sides, with presumably “fine” people on each, prayed to the same God and, therefore, believed they were right, and that God would grant them victory. Presumably, if their cause were indeed just, he would also spare them a long and grinding war. In a war’s early stages, ideas and ideals seem more pure, untainted by political calculation or the atrocities of one’s own side. But once you pick a side—or once you’re already on a side because you happen to be of the South or of the North—there isn’t much you can do. War becomes “tribal.” Sarat, a Southern rebel and American War’s protagonist, asks her mentor Albert Gaines, a Northerner by birth and a veteran of Iraq and Syria, why he chose to side with the South:

“I sided with the Red because when a Southerner tells you what they’re fighting for—be it tradition, pride, or just mule-headed stubbornness—you can agree or disagree, but you can’t call it a lie. When a Northerner tells you what they’re fighting for, they’ll use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time both you and they know that the meaning of those words changes by the day.”

Gaines goes on: “Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind.” This seems to worry Sarat, and so he asks her: “If you knew for a fact we were wrong, would it be enough to turn you against your own people?” “No,” she says.

But for those predisposed to fight—perhaps if they witnessed a massacre, as Sarat did—there is a kind of joy to be found from taking up arms for a cause. Writing on the motivations that drew El Salvadorian insurgents to join together during the 1970s and 1980s, Elisabeth Jean Wood captures this feeling, arguing that “they took pride, indeed pleasure, in the successful assertion of their interests and identity.” Wood calls this “the pleasure of agency.”

There’s something to this, isn’t there? War and the urge toward it boiled down to the simple “pleasure of agency,” with so much justification as some kind of window-dressing for the latent violence in our hearts that flows from the desire to justify one’s existence by one’s own force of being?

The “pleasure of agency” versus the law of the cross.

Health as wholeness

Wendell Berry spoke in 1992 with Michael Toms. I found their conversation recently when searching Berry’s works and enjoyed the entire hour:

…an hour of stirring and straightforward wisdom from one of the most highly respected of modern American writers and poets. Using words like “affection”, “satisfaction”, “care”, and “joy”, Berry calls for a re-evaluation of the basic values and practices of our lives. He illustrates his ideas with glimpses of his own life and those of his Kentucky farm neighbors, and describes a future where we can learn to find love, wisdom and meaning in the people, the places and the work of our own daily lives. “Abstractions don’t work – abstractions are abstractions,” he says. “You have to realize that finally you must do something.”

There was this particular exchange that I transcribed because it was arresting to me:

I thought to myself that health is so much more than just physical.

Yes. It is, of course, physical. But physical health doesn’t exist apart from the health of other things. Health ultimately involves the community, and the community ultimately involves the place, and natural life of that place, so that real health … is harmony with the world. Nothing is left out of health because health always implies wholeness.

And harmony with the world in the sense not of the planetary world out there, but harmony with the place we’re experiencing here.

Yes, the world as it’s represented to you immediately where you are.

So often I think that there’s this projection out there somehow that disconnects us from our ability to manifest creatively or to do something.

Yes. It leaves you with nothing to do. The universe, and even the planet, are ideas with respect to this conversation, anyway. They don’t immediately exist. And being right with the universe doesn’t propose that you do anything. Whereas being right with your local place and community and household—that task proposes many little jobs of work and some big ones.

Listen.