Humility and Truth: A Conversation with Wendell Berry

Posted by Ragan Sutterfield on 4/22/17 7:00 AM

Author Wendell Berry believes we should seek beauty and truth in our daily lives. Image: Wikimedia CommonsAs I wrote my book, Wendell Berry and the Given Life, there were many questions that came as I reflected on his work. Some were answered in continued reading, but others still lingered. With paper and a postal stamp, using his preferred mode of communication, I sent Berry six questions whose answers I thought would be helpful for readers to move from reading into the practice of creatureliness. Berry was kind enough to respond with his signature combination of economy and wisdom.

 

The idea that our lives are “given” comes up often in your writing. What does it mean to be given? How does it change how we live in the world?

I use the word “given” in reference to this world and our life in it. Two things are implied: first, that we ourselves did not make these things, although by birth we are made responsible for them; and, second, that the world and our lives in it do not come to us by chance.

 

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote: “The way is humility, the goal is truth.” Your own work reflects a similar understanding. How does humility help us recover the truth about the world and ourselves?

If you think, as I do, that the truth is large and our intelligence small, then a certain humility is implied and is even inescapable. As for my own humility, I am not very certain about the extent of it. I know that I had my upbringing from people who would have been ashamed of me if they heard me bragging on myself like a presidential candidate, and I am still in agreement with them. However, I seem to have a good deal of confidence in the rightness of my advocacy for good care of the land and the people. Without that confidence, I don’t think I could have kept it up for as long as I have.

 

For us to be healthy, we must be members of a whole, but the other side is that we are entangled in the diseases of the membership, whether we like it or not. For instance, many of us would like to be rid of fossil fuels, but cannot live lovingly in our communities without them. How do we work toward health without getting overwhelmed by these maladies common to the membership?

Advocates for good care of the earth and the people are, as you say, involved inescapably in the wrongs that they oppose. I don’t have a method for dealing with this. I can only try to meet my obligations the best I can with the available means. I try to keep the standard of good health always in mind. I try not to buy things I don’t need. And I continue to try to support myself as much as possible by my own work. And yet I remain involved in wrongs that I recognize as such and oppose. Like everybody I know or have heard of. I call this Original Sin Round Two.

 

So much of your work is about place and home. Many of us who did not grow up deeply rooted in a place read your work with a sense of envy and loss. How can we begin to become a part of a place without our settling down simply being another act of choice in a consumer economy? What advice would you give someone who grew up in five different places and is now ready to “stop somewhere”?

It is true that my family on both sides has belonged to this neighborhood for a long time, and there has never been a time in my life when I did not think of it as my home. As a writer, my obligation has been to bear witness to this circumstance, which I have certainly found rewarding but not entirely so. Tanya and I, however, have not been immune to the “mobility” of our time. We have lived here now for more than fifty years. But in her young life, Tanya attended twenty-two schools. And before we finally settled here, she and I set up housekeeping more or less in ten houses.

I believe we both find good reasons to be glad we have lived here so long and in my writing I probably have said enough about such reasons as we have found. But my obligation to bear witness to my own experience does not imply an obligation to advise others. It was Gary Snyder who advised that people in our generally homeless society should “stop somewhere.” He very properly did not say where anybody should stop, or, once there, how to stay stopped.

 

For someone reading your work, daydreaming of country life while on his lunch break in downtown Chicago, what would be the first advice you would offer for him to reclaim his life as a creature?

I’m perfectly willing to recommend that people should try to understand their present circumstances and their personal economies, even that they should measure their circumstances and conduct by the standard of good health. But it is impossible to be entirely confident in advising even people you know well about their personal choices. I assume that there are some people in downtown Chicago who ought to stay in downtown Chicago.

 

Finally, as someone who has worked for many decades against the grain of an economy bent on destruction, what sustains you and continues to give you hope?

I am sustained by what I know of the history and present examples of good work, and by the goodness and beauty that I still find in the world.


For the past 50 years, Wendell Berry has been helping seekers chart a return to the practice of being creatures. Through his essays, poetry and fiction, Berry has repeatedly drawn our attention to the ways in which our lives are gifts in a whole economy of gifts. Wendell Berry and the Given Life articulates his vision for the creaturely life and the Christian understandings of humility and creation that underpin it.

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