Wendell Berry has been acclaimed as America’s living prophet for many decades now.
For some 30 years, his words have served as a plumb line and carved the shape of my highest intentions and my best hopes. I both quickly and liberally confess how far off the mark I am.
“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Manifesto” is the spine-broken page of my first volume of his “Collected Poems.”
When Wendell and I crossed paths to work on sustainable agriculture projects and the saving of an old-growth forest when I was in my 20s, I had to quell my flushed excitement and embarrassment as one of many seminarian “Wendell groupies” in order to have any semblance of intelligent discourse with him.
Still later, I needed the weight of our practical tasks together to keep my feet on the ground in his presence.
Now, I just wish Wendell was wrong.
“It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits,” he observed in his 2012 Jefferson Lecture titled “It Turns on Affection.”
We eat our breakfast every morning watching a death toll rise in numbers that should drive us to our knees and to any measures to save lives. And we keep eating.
We want football and shopping malls and the freedom to die, as well as the freedom to be the vector of death to our own neighbors. The Mad Farmer said something about that decades ago.
Day after day, I keep wondering what truth will break through the deadly haze. In the night, my mind thrashes trying to make sense of baffling incoherence between people’s stated faith or education level, versus their refusal to embody love of neighbor or to listen to science.
What facts will move people? What offensive statement will be one too many, such that the spell is broken? Children in cages? Admissions of assaulting women? Lies? Scientific reality? The endless racist dog whistles? The thousands and thousands dead?
I see no end in sight. Regardless of who wins the election, as a people, we are still left with this.
In 2010, Berry was honored with the National Humanities Medal. In 2012, he gave the Jefferson Lecture.
In that lecture, E.M. Forster’s ideas in the novel, Howard’s End, set the stage for Berry’s fundamental thesis. Berry quotes Forster’s lament of the “vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness,” which results in alienation and destruction.
Forster declares that even the conquest and accumulation of “facts and facts … an empire of facts” become greedy meaninglessness if they do not “rekindle the light within.”
Berry identifies Forster’s “light within” as affection. In doing so, he places affection at the pivot point of history writ large, as well as at the turning point for our days, individually and collectively, if there is to be healing in the world.
Affection is a humble word, simply defined as a “tender attachment,” stepping beyond a world infatuated with objectivity and into the true human world that, of necessity, involves subjectivity and connection.
Berry says affection brings with it qualities we all know: “love, care, sympathy, mercy, forbearance, respect, reverence.” He says affection must serve as “motive and guide” for “knowledge without affection leads us astray.”
“We cannot know the whole truth, which belongs to God alone, but our task, nevertheless, is to seek to know what is true,” Berry observed. “And if we offend gravely enough against what we know to be true, as by failing badly enough to deal affectionately and responsibly with our land and our neighbors, truth will retaliate with ugliness, poverty and disease. The crisis of this line of thought is the realization that we are at once limited and unendingly responsible for what we know and do.”
We are living in a pandemic caused by a novel virus. We are also living in the many pandemics humans have created: racism, environmental destruction, evangelicalism turned cult of nationalism, the glorification of greed and glamour, just a few among the many.
We have facts, data and credible resources aplenty. Conspiracy theories, lies, propaganda and absurdities aplenty in equal measure.
As Berry predicted, technology itself has no ethics, so it is flinging fact, fiction, conspiracy and lies back on us and our children with chaotic, damning and distorting algorithms.
Social media is the demon of the day, but in many ways, it is not a new thing. Human beings are always living, at some level, the stories of the tower of Babel and the golden calf on repeat, just in different forms.
Social media is the current golden calf. Deep irony lies in the oxymoronic nature of that term itself. Within the definition of the word “social” lies “in need of companionship.” And there we have it.
We are all in need of companionship in a world moving too fast, alienated and separated. So, we have married our true human need to our current day and created our own golden calf.
Should we look to leaders to find new and sophisticated ways to regulate this new Babel we have so eagerly become a part of? Of course, we should, but it’s complicated.
No solution will come from on high, and it won’t come fast enough. The technology has outpaced our policy, as well as our cognitive and ethical capacities.
For Wendell Berry, it is not complicated, though he never suggests it is easy. He offers a solution closer at hand and closer at heart. Affection. The actions of tender attachment.
The brilliance of Wendell Berry always lies in his reliance on the oldest and simplest of tools, those well-worn humble words that have been available to human beings since the beginning of time.
Berry is not a word creator like bestselling self-help authors who hope to craft and “own” a new-fangled term by jamming two words together as if they have an actual new idea under the sun.
Berry actually lives his life, speaks and writes his books and poetry in the language of common, well-worn, suitable enough words.
For the rest of us, Berry is a word re-discoverer – a word rescuer. If we will listen.
When we have eagerly abandoned true and humble words in search of bigger, fancier and better ones, Berry offers us a chance again at the basic words that are necessary to being human, to being neighbors and, in the end, to saving the world.
Berry offers us the idea of affection. Tender attachment.
I can keep thrashing in my mind at the baffling intellectual incoherence of watching intelligent, educated and Christ-professing people accepting – even cheering on – racism, lies, anti-science and conspiracies they know to be false and despicable distortions of masculinity.
Or I can stop thrashing. The intellectual pieces are not going to fit together. The facts cannot be fit together without some binding stuff in between that turns information toward truth – a much higher thing.
This chaos is not about competing facts, evidence or logic. It is about the stuff between. This jumble can only be calmed, governed and ordered by affection – tender attachment with love, mercy, reverence and respect – “as motive and guide.”
Or it will continue to destroy to the degree people side with alienation, separation, irreverence, disrespect and domination.
So again, Wendell has given me a plumb line – both to understand the world and to try to “true up” myself in it.
May we all fan the flames, faint and simple as they may be, of true affection, tender attachment. And live into the risk – or the faith we have actually already claimed. That surrender to love, tenderness and mercy does, in fact, conquer brute force and domination. In the end, it is the only thing that can.
An Alabama native and mother of three sons, Hiley has a BA in history, a Master of Divinity, and is a former Kellogg Foundation National Leadership Fellow. She lives near Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband, Todd Heifner.