I am reading Wendell Berry- “The Art of the Commonplace.” I have read and re-read one piece this week.
He is speaking of the general and the particular, that they must be held in tension, and that we are impoverished by ignoring either. For instance, marriage is particular, keeping faith with the one chosen, but it is also keeping faith with those who one has not chosen. And care of home and one’s environment is a responsible way to live in the larger world.
“One cannot fulfill one’s love for womankind or mankind, or even for all the women or men to whom one is attracted. If one is to have the power and delight of one’s sexuality, then the generality of instinct must be resolved in a responsible relationship to a particular person. Similarly one cannot live in the world; that is, one cannot become, in the easy, generalizing sense with which the phrase is commonly used, a ‘world citizen.’ There can be no such thing as a ‘global village.’ No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality.”
A mantra of the environmental movement is “think globally, act locally.” For most of our lives, this is our only real option. The moments when we can act, in a sense, globally, are rare, and are only really a second or third locality. We go, for instance, to an orphanage in Mexico and serve for a few weeks, locally, there. Even Jesus was limited to one place and time. Theology calls this the “scandal of particularity” – that God could be limited to one place, one body, one personality, one time. Impossible. But to be human this is what must be.
“But to encapsulate these partial relationships is to entrap and condemn them in their partiality; it is to endanger them and to make them dangerous. They are enlivened and given the possibility of renewal by the double sense of particularity and generality; one lives in marriage and in sexuality, at home and in the world. It is impossible, for instance, to conceive that a man could despise women and yet love his wife, or love his own place in the world and yet deal destructively with other places.”
As a young mother I worked relentlessly to ensure the survival and wellness of my children. I found ways to provide for them, to put meals on the table over and over, to keep them healthy and help them learn to think and choose. Now that so much focus is not on my own children, I have a new generativity that touches a broader field of children and homes, and can contribute to those in various ways. But fundamentally, it is still limited in scope – one hand holding one hand. Some people have the skill to create a paradigm that can reach many, seemingly en mass, but in reality it is a complex system of many reaching many – one or two at a time.
The care of the world, then, is not too big for any of us to participate in. The smallest acts of kindness, care, generosity and help are world changing. My fidelity to my husband is for the sake of the world as much as for our household.
So many of my choices seem futilely small. Cans into recycling. Avoiding poisons on our lawn. Stopping to help someone pick up a dropped bag of groceries. Taking time to smile at an old man who is lonely. A meal to an international student. And hugs. But these are, in fact, the destruction of the ‘curse’ and participation in a world renewal.