Silencing the Heretics: How the Faithful Respond to Criticism of Technology

I started to write a post about a few unhinged reactions to an essay published by Nicholas Carr in this weekend’s WSJ, “Automation Makes Us Dumb.”  Then I realized that I already wrote that post back in 2010. I’m republishing “A God that Limps” below, with slight revisions, and adding a discussion of the reactions to Carr. 

Our technologies are like our children: we react with reflexive and sometimes intense defensiveness if either is criticized. Several years ago, while teaching at a small private high school, I forwarded an article to my colleagues that raised some questions about the efficacy of computers in education. This was a mistake. The article appeared in a respectable journal, was judicious in its tone, and cautious in its conclusions. I didn’t think then, nor do I now, that it was at all controversial. In fact, I imagined that given the setting it would be of at least passing interest. However, within a handful of minutes (minutes!)—hardly enough time to skim, much less read, the article—I was receiving rather pointed, even angry replies.

I was mystified, and not a little amused, by the responses. Mostly though, I began to think about why this measured and cautious article evoked such a passionate response. Around the same time I stumbled upon Wendell Berry’s essay titled, somewhat provocatively, “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer.” More arresting than the essay itself, however, were the letters that came in to Harper’s. These letters, which now typically appear alongside the essay whenever it is anthologized, were caustic and condescending. In response, Berry wrote,

The foregoing letters surprised me with the intensity of the feelings they expressed. According to the writers’ testimony, there is nothing wrong with their computers; they are utterly satisfied with them and all that they stand for. My correspondents are certain that I am wrong and that I am, moreover, on the losing side, a side already relegated to the dustbin of history. And yet they grow huffy and condescending over my tiny dissent. What are they so anxious about?

Precisely my question. Whence the hostility, defensiveness, agitation, and indignant, self-righteous anxiety?

I’m typing these words on a laptop, and they will appear on a blog that exists on the Internet.  Clearly I am not, strictly speaking, a Luddite. (Although, in light of Thomas Pynchon’s analysis of the Luddite as Badass, there may be a certain appeal.) Yet, I do believe an uncritical embrace of technology may prove fateful, if not Faustian.

The stakes are high. We can hardly exaggerate the revolutionary character of certain technologies throughout history:  the wheel, writing, the gun, the printing press, the steam engine, the automobile, the radio, the television, the Internet. And that is a very partial list. Katherine Hayles has gone so far as to suggest that, as a species, we have “codeveloped with technologies; indeed, it is no exaggeration,” she writes in Electronic Literature, “to say modern humans literally would not have come into existence without technology.”

We are, perhaps because of the pace of technological innovation, quite conscious of the place and power of technology in our society and in our own lives. We joke about our technological addictions, but it is sometimes a rather nervous punchline. It makes sense to ask questions. Technology, it has been said, is a god that limps. It dazzles and performs wonders, but it can frustrate and wreak havoc. Good sense seems to suggest that we avoid, as Thoreau put it, becoming tools of our tools. This doesn’t entail burning the machine; it may only require a little moderation. At a minimum, it means creating, as far as we are able, a critical distance from our toys and tools, and that requires searching criticism.

And we are back where we began. We appear to be allergic to just that kind of searching criticism. So here is my question again:  Why do we react so defensively when we hear someone criticize our technologies?

And so ended my earlier post. Now consider a handful of responses to Carr’s article, “Automation Makes Us Dumb.” Better yet, read the article, if you haven’t already, and then come back for the responses.

Let’s start with a couple of tweets by Joshua Gans, a professor of management at the University of Toronto.

Then there was this from entrepreneur, Marc Andreessen:

Even better are some of the replies attached to Andreessen’s tweet. I’ll transcribe a few of those here for your amusement.

“Why does he want to be stuck doing repetitive mind-numbing tasks?”

“‘These automatic jobs are horrible!’ ‘Stop killing these horrible jobs with automation!'” [Sarcasm implied.]

“by his reasoning the steam engine makes us weaklings, yet we’ve seen the opposite. so maybe the best intel is ahead”

“Let’s forget him, he’s done so much damage to our industry, he is just interested in profiting from his provocations”

“Nick clearly hasn’t understood the true essence of being ‘human’. Tech is an ‘enabler’ and aids to assist in that process.”

“This op-ed is just a Luddite screed dressed in drag. It follows the dystopian view of ‘Wall-E’.”

There you have it. I’ll let you tally up the logical fallacies.

Honestly, I’m stunned by the degree of apparently willful ignorance exhibited by these comments. The best I can say for them is that they are based on a glance at the title of Carr’s article and nothing more. It would be much more worrisome if these individuals had actually read the article and still managed to make these comments that betray no awareness of what Carr actually wrote.

More than once, Carr makes clear that he is not opposed to automation in principle. The last several paragraphs of the article describe how we might go forward with automation in a way that avoids some serious pitfalls. In other words, Carr is saying, “Automate, but do it wisely.” What a Luddite!

When I wrote in 2010, I had not yet formulated the idea of a Borg Complex, but this inability to rationally or calmly abide any criticism of technology is surely pure, undistilled Borg Complex, complete with Luddite slurs!

I’ll continue to insist that we are in desperate need of serious thinking about the powers that we are gaining through our technologies. It seems, however, that there is a class of people who are hell-bent on shutting down any and all criticism of technology. If the criticism is misguided or unsubstantiated, then it should be refuted. Dismissing criticism while giving absolutely no evidence of having understood it, on the other hand, helps no one at all.

I come back to David Noble’s description of the religion of technology often, but only because of how useful it is as a way of understanding techno-scientific culture. When technology is a religion, when we embrace it with blind faith, when we anchor our hope in it, when we love it as ourselves–then any criticism of technology will be understood as either heresy or sacrilege. And that seems to be a pretty good way of characterizing the responses to tech criticism I’ve been discussing: the impassioned reactions of the faithful to sacrilegious heresy.

A Thought About Thinking

Several posts in the last few months have touched on the idea of thinking, mostly with reference to the work of Hannah Arendt. “Thinking what we are doing” was a recurring theme in her writing, and it could very easily serve as a slogan, along with the line from McLuhan below the blog’s title, for what I am trying to do here.

Thinking, though, is one of those things that we do naturally, or so we believe, so it is therefore one of those things for which we have a hard time imagining an alternative mode. Let me try putting that another way. The more “natural” a fact about the world seems to us, the harder it is for us to imagine that it could be otherwise. What’s more, thinking about our own thinking is a dynamic best captured by trying to imagine jumping over our own shadow, although, finally, not impossible in the same way.

We all think, if by “thinking” we simply mean our stream of consciousness, our unending internal monologue. But, having thoughts does not necessarily equal thinking. That’s neither a terribly profound observation nor a controversial one. But what, then, does constitute thinking?

Here’s one line of thought in partial response. It’s tempting to associate thinking with “problem solving.” Thinking in these cases takes as its point of departure some problem that needs to be solved. Our thinking then sets out to understand the problem, perhaps by identifying its causes, before proceeding to propose solutions, solutions which usually involve the weighing of pros and cons.

This is the sort of thinking that we tend to prize, and for obvious reasons. When there are problems, we want solutions. We might call this sort of thinking technocratic thinking, or thinking on the model of engineering. By calling it this I don’t intend to disparage it. We need this sort of thinking, no doubt. But if this is the only sort of thinking we do, then we’ve impoverished the category.

But what’s the alternative?

The technocratic mode of thinking makes the assumption that all problems have solutions and all questions have answers. Or, what’s worse, that the only problems worth thinking about are those we can solve and the only questions worth asking are those that we can definitively answer. The corollary temptation is that we begin to look at life merely as a series of problems in search of a solution. We might call this the engineered life.

All of this further assumes that thinking itself is not inherently valuable; it is valuable only as a means to an end: in this case, either the solution or the answer.

We need, instead, to insist on the value of thinking as an end in itself. We might make a start by distinguishing between questions we answer and questions we live with–that is, questions we may never fully answer, but whose contemplation enriches our lives. We may further distinguish between problems we solve and problems we simply inhabit as a condition of being human.

This needs to be further elaborated, but I’ll leave that to your own thinking. I’ll also leave you with another line that has meant a lot to me over the years. It’s taken from a poem by Wendell Berry:

“We live the given life, not the planned.”

The Miracle of Gravity

You have likely already heard two things about the space-epic, Gravity. You have heard that it is a visually stunning, anxiety-inducing thriller that immediately absorbs you into its world and does not release you until the credits roll. That is largely correct. You have also heard that Gravity is not really about space. It is really about the inner struggles of the main character, Dr. Ryan Stone played by Sandra Bullock. This is also true enough. But what exactly is Gravity trying to tell us about this inner human struggle being played out against sublimely rendered vistas of earth and space?

As Matt Thomas astutely noted, Gravity trades in both the natural sublime and the technological sublime. The first of these is a common enough notion: it is the sense of awe, wonder, and fear that certain natural realities can inspire in us. Gravity gives us plenty of opportunities to experience the natural sublime as our gaze alternates from the meticulously wrought surface of the earth to the starry, cavernous darkness of the space which envelops it.

The technological sublime is a concept developed by the historian David Nye to describe the analogous feelings of awe, wonder, and fear that we experience in the presence of certain man-made realities. Nye documented a series of human technologies that inspired this kind of response when they were first developed. These included the Hoover Dam, skyscrapers, the electrified city-scape, the atomic bomb, and the Saturn V rockets. In Gravity, depictions of the space shuttle, the International Space Station, and the Hubble telescope — even after they have been pummeled and shredded by space debris — also manage to evoke this experience of the technological sublime.

Against this double sublime, Gravity unfolds its plot of disaster and survival. [Yes, spoilers ahead.] Within minutes, Dr. Stone and Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney) find themselves adrift after a field of space debris strikes the shuttle and kills the rest of the crew. Kowalski is preternaturally calm in the face of this unthinkable catastrophe. After he recovers Dr. Stone, the pair begin making their way to the ISS in hopes of using the station’s Soyuz capsule to return to earth. Had that initial plan worked, of course, it would have been a very short film.

Upon arriving at the ISS, Kowalski is lost in an act of heroic self-sacrifice and the capsule turns out to be too damaged to survive re-entry. Before he is lost, Kowalski lays out a plan of action for Dr. Stone. She is to take the battered capsule to the Chinese space station and then use their emergency capsule for the journey home. Stone manages to follow this plan, but one near catastrophe after another ensues maintaining a feverish pitch of suspense, or, as some critics have noted, threatening to steer the film into melodrama.

It is in the midst of one of these crisis that Stone is tempted to give up altogether. She finds that the Soyuz capsule does not have enough fuel to get to the Chinese station and so she opts to turn off the capsule’s life support systems and float off into that other dark abyss. This scene is pivotal. We have already learned that Stone lost a daughter in a painfully random playground accident. Ever since, she has lost herself in her work and driven aimlessly at night to assuage her sorrow. She is alone in space now, but she realizes that she is alone on earth as well. No one would mourn her loss, she realizes.

As she begins to doze into unconsciousness, however, Kowalski reappears, chatty and calm as always. He acknowledges that there is something appealing about the escape she is about to make, but he encourages her to reconsider and suggests a strategy that she had not yet considered. And then he disappears. We realize that she had been hallucinating, but she rallies nonetheless and determines to not give up on the hope of return quite yet.

If Kant and Nye help us to describe the sublime scenery against which Stone’s struggle is set, I’d like to suggest that Wendell Berry and G.K. Chesterton can help us make sense of the struggle itself.

Stone must learn to see life on earth — with both its heartache and tragedy, its joys and delights — as a gift, and it is through a kind of death that her perception begins to be realigned. Wendell Berry has beautifully captured this dynamic in his reflections on a wonderfully poignant scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear involving the blinded Earl of Gloucester and his son, Edgar. Gloucester is in despair, and seeks to take his life. The life he thought himself the master of has unraveled, and he has compounded this troubles by falsely accusing Edgar and driving him into exile. But Edgar, disguised as a beggar, has returned to his father to lead him out of despair so that the old man may die in the proper human position, “Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief …”

As Berry puts it, “Edgar does not want his father to give up on life. To give up on life is to pass beyond the possibility of change or redemption.” So when Gloucester asks to be taken to the cliffs of Dover so that by a leap he may end his life, his disguised son only pretends to do so. The stage directions then indicate that Gloucester, “Falls forward and swoons.” When he awakes, his son now pretends to be a man who has seen Gloucester survive the great fall. Gloucester is dismayed. “Away, and let me die,” he says. But Edgar, narrates what he has “seen” and proclaims, “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.”

It is that line, that realization that brings Gloucester back from despair. Having passed through a kind of fictive death, he has been brought once more to see his life as a gift. And so it was with Stone. Kowalski plays Edgar to her Gloucester and having flirted with death, she is recalled to life. No longer does she long for the escape into death that the dark, harshness of space represents in this film. She now determines to find her place again on earth, with all of its attendant sorrows and joys.

So much for Berry, what of Chesterton? Chesterton famously came to faith through an experience of profound gratitude for the sheer gratuity of being. While she ponders the possibility of death and laments that there will be no one to mourn her, Stone also says that there will be no one to pray for her. She confesses that she cannot pray for herself. She was never taught. When, finally, she has reentered the earth’s atmosphere and her capsule splashes down in a murky lake, Stone must make one more fight for her life. The capsule is inundated and she must swim out for air, but she is forced to struggle with her space suit, which threatens to sink her. Once she has fought free of this last obstacle, she makes her way to a muddy shore and, cheek to clay, she exhales the words, “Thank you.” She has, I take it, learned to pray. 

This film about space ends on earth as Stone struggles to her feet under the pull of gravity. But by the composure of her posture and the joy of her expression, we are encouraged to conclude that now, finally, Stone is not only on earth, but she is also at home on earth. She no longer seeks an escape. She is prepared to live with both grief and joy. She knows too that for all of the sublime splendor of space, it is her life that is the most profound miracle for which the instinctive response can only be gratitude.

Home

little way“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T. S. Eliot

Home. It’s a mythic notion. Two of the three great epics of the Greco-Roman world trade explicitly in its associations. Odysseus and Aeneas each journey homeward – the former back toward the home he left that yet remains, although not unchanged; the latter, his home destroyed, moves forward toward a home yet to be found. The Odyssey, then, is a story about those who have a home to go back to, and the Aeneid is a story for those who long for home but have no place that answers to the name.

And then there is the story of Cain in the book of Genesis. After Cain murdered his brother, he was condemned to be a wanderer, forever alienated from God and family. His plight presents itself as an allegory of the human condition. But then there was a twist. Cain, we are told, went on to build a city, he would not be a wanderer after all; and his descendants are reckoned the founders of agriculture, metallurgy, and the arts – in short, of human civilization. Out of the dissatisfactions of homelessness, we are led to conclude, flowed the great achievements of human culture. But the narrator has the last word. He tells us that Cain built his city in the land of Nod, a name that echoes the Hebrew word for wandering. It is a touch of literary artistry which poignantly suggests that, even when it is surrounded by the accouterments of civilization, the human soul wanders lost and alienated … homeless.

Reflections on the theme of home and homelessness are not the preoccupation of ancient writers alone. They persist because the condition with which they wrestle persists. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher’s recently published book about his sister’s untimely death and his subsequent return to rural Louisiana, takes its place within this ancient literary tradition, and admirably so.

Rod and Ruthie Dreher grew up in the same small Louisiana town that had been home to the Dreher family for generations. During his high school years, Rod felt increasingly alienated from his family and his small town, so he left to pursue what would turn out to be a successful career in journalism that took him from one metropolis to another. Ruthie stayed. She married her high school sweetheart, became a beloved middle school teacher, and cultivated enduring relationships with family and friends.

Then Ruthie was diagnosed with a nasty, virulent form of lung cancer. It was a devastating and inexplicable diagnosis for the young mother of three who had never once smoked. For the next several months, her small hometown rallied around Ruthie and her family in countless precious ways. Rod witnessed all of this, and it changed his heart. He was moved by the generosity and love that surrounded his suffering family, and he was impressed anew by the beauty of Ruthie’s seemingly simple, but wonderfully rich, life. Then he moved his family back to Louisiana to be a part of the same community he had escaped so many years before. Without illusions, he chose to return home.

Dreher’s book has received numerous, invariably favorable, reviews, so I’ll only repeat what others have more eloquently observed. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a beautiful mediation on family, place, fatherhood, ambition, love, sacrifice, and much else that is a great human consequence. It is a moving book, but it is not sentimental. It praises the virtues of community without being blind to its vices. It raises all sorts of terribly important questions that we should all consider with great seriousness, but that we too often bury and supress. It deserves to be read widely, and I hope that it is. And I hope that it generates conversation, discussion, and debate about the assumptions that order our lives.

My Home and Homelessness

Little Way made me think again about my own identity. I grew up the son of Cuban immigrants living in South Florida. I spent the first 19 years of my life there, and then I moved away. Consequently, there are two ways in which Dreher’s story addressed my experience. I remain away from the place where I grew up, where most of my family still resides, and, as a first generation American, I inherited, at a certain emotional remove, my family’s status as aliens in a land not their own.

For reasons that remain opaque even to myself, and to the chagrin of my family, as a child I readily identified with American culture. Spanish was my first language, and I grew up in Miami where one can spend a lifetime without recourse to English.  When I was four, I was sent to school knowing only one English phrase:  “Where is the bathroom?” But within a very short period of time, and without retaining any conscious memory of the transformation, I was speaking English with ease. Today I cannot remember ever thinking in Spanish. And so it was with most every other cultural marker.

From a very early age, then, I came to feel that somehow I was out of step with my family and its heritage. It was just the way it was, and I didn’t think too much about it.  In time, that became my identity: I was the one who didn’t fit in. In fact, when I was very young, I entertained something verging on scorn for my Cuban background. Over the years, this mellowed into indifference. But more recently, I’ve noticed the stirrings of affection for certain aspects of my Cuban culture. Perhaps it is a function of growing older and coming to a better understanding of who I am. It is most evident to me in the unexpected pleasure that comes from meeting someone who also speaks Spanish and then stumbling through a conversation in the language with which I first confronted this world.

It would be disingenuous to say that I now finally feel myself to be fully at home in Cuban culture; that is simply not the case. But in ways that I would not have anticipated even a few years ago, I’ve learned that my family’s culture is very much a part of who I am. From time to time, certain cultural chords are struck that reverberate in my heart and remind me that identity is not merely a performance or a choice. Reading Little Way led me to think again about how an immigrant family can remain homeless even when they have made a new home for themselves. Aeneas will, after all, always be a Trojan. But it did something more, although I’m not quite sure I can capture it. Let me just say that it came to me at the right time. The story it told shed light on my own experience. The grace to which it bore witness helped me see the grace present in my own life.

My interests being what they are, Little Way also set me to thinking about how it might speak to our digitally augmented lives. Here again I turned to my own experience. I realized that my digital life could be read as a refusal of limits: the limits of time and place, my time and my place. The Internet — or better, those interests who create the experience we simply gloss as “the Internet”  — promises the world, all of it, now. That is especially appealing to someone who may be nursing dissatisfaction with their current state of affairs or harboring ambitions that outstrip their current place. This is not necessarily a complaint against the Internet itself or the ubiquitous devices through which we access it. Rather it is a complaint, against my own use of the Internet – or at least the shape it sometimes takes.

The Internet can be that bigger, more welcoming, more exciting reality that we seek when we are dissatisfied with the constraints of our present circumstances. It trades in possibilities and the fantasy of limitlessness. It is no longer that the big city lures the small town child with its expansive horizons; it’s that the Internet lures us all, for all of our lives seem quaintly provincial when set against the digitally augmented realities on offer, and aspects of life that are not subject to digital augmentation may begin to appear impoverished.

I want to be careful on this point. I do not want to deny that the possibilities created by the Internet are sometimes genuinely good. I am very glad, for instance, that it provides the means to easily keep in touch with friends and family that are scattered all over the country and beyond. But scattered they are and scattered they will likely remain. The comforts of social media are real, but they are at best partial and they have their very real limits which must be acknowledged. Dreher’s story reminds us that all of the affordances of communication technologies are a poor substitute for the aid and comfort that can only be offered in person.

As I’ve written before, the problem is not so much with the technology under consideration as it is with us. After all, Dreher, who makes his living as a blogger, could not have come home  without the work made possible by the Internet. The problem arises when we make the Internet an unhealthy escape from the sometimes difficult realities that confront us as we do the hard work of living and loving. It arises when our digital practices amount to a refusal of responsibility and a perpetual deferment of commitment. But these problems are not created by the Internet, they are a function of our own disordered loves.

Limits

Some have complained that Dreher naively offers up the mythic small town as the cure for all that ills our weary souls. These people, it seems to me, have missed the point. It is true that Dreher came to see the remarkable love and support one small town offered up to a family that had long lived in that place and cultivated those relationships. The city may offer some unique challenges to the cultivation of such a community, and so may the suburbs, but they do not render community impossible. The real enemy of community is the refusal of limits on our ambition, the unchecked pursuit of autonomy, and the narrowly construed quest for personal fulfillment. These are the ideals that must be, to some degree, sacrificed if we are to build abiding communities with the resources to sustain its members through times of sorrow and suffering and provide the deep social context in which joy and meaning are possible.

While reading Little Way, I thought often of something Wendell Berry wrote a few years ago:

“… our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible … A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure—in addition to its difficulties—that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.”

That is so well put I can hardly improve on it. This is what Ruthie Leming practiced.

Most of us live as if we believe that the surest path to happiness is that which spins out endlessly and offers up the least resistance, but traveling that path is a futile business. I’ve confessed elsewhere my assumption that the highest form of freedom is not the ability to pursue whatever whim or fancy may strike us at any given moment, but rather the freedom to make choices which will promote our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our communities. And such choices often involve sacrifice and the curtailment of our own autonomy. To put this another way, happiness, that elusive state which according to Aristotle is the highest good we all pursue, lies not at the end of a journey at which every turn we have chosen for ourselves, but along the path marked by choices for others and in accord with a moral order that may at times require the reordering rather than immediate satisfaction of our desires.

This vision of the good life does not play well in the society we have made for ourselves. In fact, it has become counter-intuitive. If it is ever to gain any traction, it cannot be merely preached. It must be lived, and its beauty must of its own mysterious accord draw us in. This is, I believe, Dreher’s great accomplishment. He has faithfully and honestly written that beauty into his story so that it may speak to his readers, may they be many.

Love

The search for home is, finally, an eschatological quest. For many, this means that it is an impossible quest, or even that it is no quest at all, but a tragic and pitiable misunderstanding of the nature of things. For others, like myself, it means that it is quest whose end will not be found within the horizons of this life. We are always on the way and it would be the gravest mistake to think that what we long for, truly, when we long for Home is tied without remainder to any one place. But that does not mean we cannot, in our present experience, seek good approximations of that Home which our hearts seek.

Talk of love, like talk of home,  always threatens to spill over into triteness and cliché. But as David Foster Wallace has reminded us,  “clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.” Centuries earlier, St. Augustine wondered, “What do we love when we love our God?” This is an endlessly useful formulation. What do we love, we might now ask, when we love Home? What desire really drives our pursuit for the ideal of Home? Have we merely incorporated the search for Home into our project of self-fulfillment? If so, we’ve likely undermined the quest from the outset.

The quest for Home, like the quest for happiness, is such that, if it is to yield even its modest and partial fulfillments, cannot be undertaken for its own sake. Its success is premised on our loving something other than the idea of Home. We must love our place and we must, to borrow Auden’s apt phrasing, love our crooked neighbor with our crooked heart. We must abide. We must lay aside our self-interest and the project of self-fulfillment. We must be willing to sacrifice. We must give up our comfort. We must invest ourselves in the lives of others. And in so doing, we will find that we have been all along building a good and modest home for our pilgrim souls.

This is what the life of Ruthie Leming teaches us, and I’m grateful to Rod Dreher for writing this book that tells her story, and his.

I’m grateful to my parents for the home they made for me.

I’m grateful to my wife for the home we are building, and I’m grateful for the friends who are a part of it.

Deo gratias.

Excerpt from The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

“‘When a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another,’ writes the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry. ‘How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never 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.’

Those of us who have moved away are not necessarily callow and ungrateful people. We live in a time and place in which we are conditioned to leave our hometowns. Our schools tell our young people to follow their professional bliss, wherever it takes them. Our economy rewards companies and people who have no loyalty to place. The stories that shape the moral imagination of our young, chiefly by film and television, are told by outsiders who were dissatisfied and lit out for elsewhere to find happiness and good fortune.

During the decade leading up to Ruthie’s death, I had spent my professional life writing newspaper columns, blog posts, and even a book, lamenting the loss of community and traditions in American life. I had a reputation as a pop theoretician of cultural decline, but in truth I was long on words, and short on deeds. I did not like the fact that I saw my Louisiana family only three times a year, for a week at a time, if we were lucky. But that was the way of the world, right? Almost everyone I knew was in the same position. My friends and I talked a lot about the fragmentation of the modern family, about the deracinating effects of late capitalism, about mass media and the erosion of localist consciousness, about the consumerization of religion and the leviathan sate and every other thing under the sun that undermines our sense of home and permanence.

The one thing none of us did was what Ruthie did: Stay.

Contemporary culture encourage us to make islands of ourselves for the sake of self-fulfillment, of career advancement, of entertainment, of diversion, and all the demands of the sovereign self. When suffering and death come for you — and it will — you want to be in a place where you know, and are known. You want — no, you need — to be able to say, as Mike did, ‘We’re leaning, but we’re leaning on each other.’

I deeply believed then, and believe today, that one day I will be asked to give an account of my life to my Maker. That fateful week in Louisiana I wondered: When I meet the Lord, will I be able to say that my life had been about giving, not just taking? Would being able to discern the difference between a Bordeaux and a Burgundy bring me any closer to tasting the cup of salvation?

In short: Did I have love?”

Wendell Berry On “Camera Eye”

Came across the following this morning. Posted for your consideration.

The Vacation
by Wendell Berry

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

(1994)