On Joy and Kindness and Wendell Berry

In his spiritual memoir Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis defines the experience of joy, which led him from atheism into the Christian faith, in a beautiful and particular way. For Lewis, joy is a kind of longing for something undefinable and only partially apprehended — an ache that sparks life and imagination and takes us beyond ourselves. As he writes, it is “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” He recounts imagined worlds from his childhood, as well as the fiction of George MacDonald, creating a sense of familiar longing early in life, and how certain Wagner operas evoked a profound sense of “Northerliness” into which he ached to be absorbed.

For me this recalls the nearly euphoric experience of being caught up in a Harry Potter installment, or of becoming lost in the vast and fantastic world of Tolkien’s middle earth. There’s something about these adventures, and the worlds in which they take place, that creates a sense of profound contentment, and yet also stirs a wonderful aching to more truly belong in and to them.

“All joy reminds,” Lewis muses. “It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.'” This joyful aching for what is both “longer ago” and “about to be” is perhaps nowhere better portrayed than in the closing scenes of The Last Battle (the final Narnia book), as we find ourselves running alongside Lucy and her siblings through the green hills and mountains, “higher up and further in” to the overwhelming real-ness of Aslan’s remade world. Somewhere in his non-fiction, Lewis describes similarly the human desire for a sort of transcendent intimacy with the world around us, as when we desire to somehow soak into, and become a part of, the beauty of a countryside.

I’ve recently been reading some essays by farmer, ecologist, and lay-theologian Wendell Berry, and in so doing have rediscovered this experience of joy in a new way. Berry’s writing is beautiful as it is profound (making topics such as sustainable forestry compelling reading), and he iterates constantly the holistic and interwoven nature of human economies and natural ecosystems. In contrast to our technological ways of seeing the world that assume human control and mastery over creation, Berry offers a vision of earthly life that recognizes our dependence on this world to which we belong — on soil and agriculture, on wildlife, on rivers and trees and mountain ecosystems. In his writing we are invited to look at the earth not as a place that human ingenuity has conquered, nor as a set of resources to be extracted for gain, but as a world full of natural life and processes that for all our scientific advancement we have not (and will not) escape being a part of.

Imaginative literary worlds evoke joy in us because they are complex and grand and unknown, and we can get lost in their mystery as we become a part of them. The unexplored and inexhaustible character of such worlds inspires love and elicits joy, and rightly so. But the wonder and grace of Berry’s work is that he invites us to a joy that is oriented to this world, to the world that God has made and charged human beings to care for and enjoy.

Like the steady beat of a drum, Berry reminds anyone who will listen of the intimate connection between land and people — a connection, he laments, of which we have nearly lost all sight. Industrial methods of farming and forestry treat the land as raw material from which to extract maximum profit in the shortest possible amount of time, exhausting the land and soil for short term gain and destroying both ecosystems and human economies in the process. He offers example after example of the cost, both human and ecological, of modern technological farming that disregards the particularities of landscapes and communities.

But Berry is no mere romanticist, rejecting modern technology out of hand in favor of some idyllic agrarian past. Instead, he reminds us that there are in fact other ways forward — and that these other ways will ultimately prove to be the only ways, if we are to avoid destroying “our only world” altogether in our quest for maximum productivity and convenience. Scattered throughout his writing are concrete examples of farmers and foresters who have retained traditional wisdom and intimate knowledge about the limits of the land, while developing means and methods to balance ecological reality with sustainable profit.

A wholesale change in methods and technological use is necessary, Berry maintains, if we are to avoid both ecological and economic collapse. But such change will not come simply through policies or government incentives.

It will require (re)discovering other ways of seeing the natural world to which we belong. It will require a recognition of our dependence upon the world, and of our mutual creatureliness with the rest of the earth. It will require the nurturing of kindness in the original meaning of the word which, he notes, was closely related to a recognition of kinship. To this effect he writes:

From some Christians as far back as the twelfth century, certainly from farther back in so-called primitive cultures, and from some ecologists of our own time, we have the idea of a great kindness including and binding together all beings: the living and the nonliving, the plants and animals, the water, the air, the stones. All, ultimately, are of a kind, belonging together, interdependently, in this world. From the point of view of Genesis 1 or of the 104th Psalm, we would say that all are of one kind, one kinship, one nature, because all are creatures.

Much happiness, much joy, can come to us from our membership in a kindness so comprehensive and original. It is a shame, as I know from long acquaintance with myself, to be divided from it by the autoerotic pleasure of despising other members.

Such kindness is indeed the basis and root of joy. As Berry describes and reminds us, joy is found not in our illusory notions of freedom from or mastery over the earth on which we live, but in the recognition of ourselves as properly and wonderfully a part of the ineffably complex natural world to which we belong. This sort of kindness is the hope to which Berry gives voice, and the joy into which he challenges us to enter: a kindness that sees the world not as a thing merely to be used, but as a place full of glory, a home to learn and love and belong to.

We are prone to seek tastes of joy as Lewis describes it primarily in fictional worlds, I think, because we too often believe that this world no longer contains life or mystery, that we have mastered what it has to offer and so is it no longer big enough for us to find interesting or meaningful — or, perhaps, because we believe that we never really belonged here in the first place.

But Genesis, the Psalms, and countless other biblical passages remind us that to be truly human is to know oneself as one creature among others; to live with and in this kindness toward our fellow creatures, and to love the Creator who has bound all creation together and called it “good.” The gospel of Christian faith proclaims that such humanity is what we were made for, and that this all-encompassing kindness has been made possible again in the work of Jesus Christ.

And I’d like to suggest that the discovery of such a life may begin with something as simple as the food we choose to eat.


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