When you think about art, or music, or poetry, or prose, it's actually pretty amazing that it has the power to make us feel as intensely as it does. After all, what is it but colors, or notes, or words arranged in a particular way? The same words, same materials, same colors that we use and see all around us all the time. But something truly magical happens when a few notes in the right arrangement makes your chest swell and your heart ache. My guess is that whatever microscopic area lights up in the brain when you feel ecstasy lights up when you read a single, perfect sentence, or in my case, take a sip of viscous, peppery olive oil. And when an author has the ability to craft a phrase in such a poignant way that it makes you feel like shouting "AHA!" and thank something or someone that you're alive, it's more than a gift, in my opinion, it's true grace.
There are a few authors who can make me weep. Literally. And I'm a pretty stable lady most of the time, so the writers deserve all of the credit. Wendell Berry is one such author (in addition to being a farmer and a poet). I revisit his books often, and lately (again) I've been perusing, What Matters, and it's giving me aha moments by the dozen, but it's also re-energized me for my role as a parent, a citizen, and a human being.
I recognize that this all sounds rather superlative, but the thing is, no matter who you are, life is challenging. I would never presume to understand how challenging it is for other people, but I can say that while I feel tremendously blessed, I also experience anxiety and fear, pain, and pure exhaustion. I hope not to preach to anyone how to parent, or eat, or think, but I do think there is value in the experience I have as a mother of five, and value in the lessons I've learned as a student and a teacher. And this book in particular is something I need to share.
So here goes. Wendell's BIG question is: What prepares children for citizenship, adulthood, social responsibility, and the ability to connect meaningfully with other people? And for those of us without children: What prepares us for those things?
Wendell's answer is...drum roll please...limits.
His argument is that we can only be happy, healthy, connected human beings if we have and respect limits. Fundamentally, we are not capable of truly appreciating something that we do not value -- and we cannot value something that is limitless. For children and adults alike, if we cannot accept that something is limited we will be chronically and consistently unsatisfied.
In a recent article in Prospect, the Chief Rabbi of the U.K. wrote of a similar sentiment in his article about the Sabbath. He writes that a "weekly collective day of rest...introduces into a culture in the most vivid way the idea of limits. We can't produce, consume and deplete our resources constantly with no constraints and no thought for future generations...A failure to understand the idea of limits has, as Jared Diamond has chronicled in his books, brought about environmental devastation almost everywhere Homo sapiens has set foot."
Somehow, we've become a society that ignores limits, and that celebrates newness and bigness and, of course, "growth." We are living by, as Berry puts it "a doctrine of limitless." This is becoming increasingly apparent environmentally, economically, and socially. It also accounts for the vast discrepancy we're seeing between those who have inordinate wealth and the millions facing joblessness, homelessness and hunger.
Our problems as a society, Berry argues, are not simply that some people care about other people and our earth and some people don't -- it's that we've been conditioned to live in a system that is based on a presumption that our resources are limitless. That the world "out there" is somehow ours for the taking. That we should seek the new, the better, the bigger, the faster. That those things will make us happy, and that there is something wrong or unjust if we can't get those things.
It makes sense that when children grow up with not only information at their fingertips but the assumption that they deserve whatever new gadget or gizmo has just been released, or when we hardly have to wait for anything anymore, or simply the fact that we have created a world where if we don't hear back from someone immediately we assume something is wrong...we are conditioning ourselves to be less respectful and patient.
In turn, all of this "limitless stuff" has turned us into a society of scattered, disconnected, fearful, and in many cases arrogant people. No matter what you've got in the bank, turns out that everything -- everything -- has a limit. There is only so much growth we can handle before we pop, as we've seen time and time again over the past few decades. We are, as Berry poignantly writes, "Limited creatures living in a limited world." And this is a good thing.
Once we begin living with our limits in mind, or as the Torah suggested thousands of years ago, carve out a day of rest once a week "without texts, tweets, emails or phone calls, without television, computers or electronic games, a day without the pressures of a consumer society, without cars, traffic, planes, noise and pollution, a day dedicated to family, community, study and collective expressions of gratitude," maybe we can begin to understand the problems we have created, and begin to imagine solutions.
My humble resolve is to help my children grow up understanding limits and show them that I respect limits, whether its by expanding my Friday night dinners into Saturday Sabbaths, using less fuel, appreciating other people's time more mindfully, buying fewer home accessories (that I love)...the list goes on.
I'll do my best to break out of my "willed oblivion" as Berry puts it, accept the limits that exist in my world, and appreciate and applaud what has been systematically devalued like labor and soil. I will try to convey the value of people and food and hard work and time. And while I may not be able to make one full day a week a day of gratitude and rest, I will try remember the Rabbi's words that Sabbaths, "are to time what parks are to space: something precious that we share on equal terms and that none of us could create or possess on our own."
Thank you, Rabbi Sacks. Thank you Mr. Berry, and good Shabbos to you both.
Follow Alison Cayne on Twitter: www.twitter.com/havenskitchen