Learning to Be Human
On Maureen Swinger’s “The Teacher Who Never Spoke”:
My oldest stepson, Chris, is an adult with a diagnosis of Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome. It’s pretty rare, which is why I was taken by surprise this week when I read this terrific story. Chris is a teacher, too. He is the happiest, most loving person I’ve ever known. He not only teaches his siblings about the joys of simplicity, but he also teaches our eight grandchildren what love, acceptance, and even joy look like.
From their earliest days, our grandchildren have spent time around Chris and come to understand his likes, his limits, his love. They begin to grasp that Chris is far from the only person around with special needs, which means this is all part of normal human life. And they begin to recognize that while having Chris may mean extra work for his family and other caregivers, it also means learning that each person is of inestimable value, no matter what that person’s limits. Join me in standing against the crushing philosophy of utilitarianism. —Bill Tammeus, Kansas City, MO
The New Testament is peppered with the paradox of up and down, great and small, first and last: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). This is one of those stories that illustrates that paradox, and it’s one of the reasons why this story is my favorite of the new edition. —Julius McCarter, Loudon, TN
I was especially touched by this piece, as my dance studio is located inside a facility that serves people who are abled differently. I teach creative movement to some of the daytime participants and have become humbled by learning patience and a more flexible teaching style that then is extended toward my afternoon students studying classical ballet. This piece reminded me how often the teacher–student role has been reversed in my letting go of how I think things ought to be – and at those moments, grace rolls in. —Diana Turner-Forte, Ellerbe, NC
How to Not Burn Out
On D. L. Mayfield’s “Confronted by Dorothy”:
You rightly say that Dorothy Day showed immense perseverance in her work for social justice and “gave herself daily in unspectacular acts of love.” I wrote to her from England in 1973 asking if I could come and help in her New York House of Hospitality. She apologized in her reply, saying that she was in Fresno County Jail in California for supporting the United Farm Workers led by César Chavez, but she “would ready me a bed” when she got out. While with her in the New York house, I asked how she had managed to run the soup kitchen, offer a home to so many people, produce a newspaper, take part in demonstrations, etc., for the last forty years. I was expecting a pious answer; instead she said, “Two days off a week!” She went on to say that without that break for recreation (i.e., to re-create yourself with cultural pursuits), you would burn out and be unable to carry on the work. From my short time there I found Dorothy very wise, full of common sense, and with a great sense of humor. —Peter Keeling, Middlesbrough, UK
Thank you so much for your candor and your courage. I’m deeply touched and hope to garner strength for another day in our troubled world. I also hope to pay it forward in my daily life, my “work.” A deep bow to you from a Buddhist in St. Louis. —Keith Roper, St. Louis, MO
Wendell Berry Responds
On Tamara Hill Murphy’s “The Hole in Wendell Berry’s Gospel” (no. 11):
Tamara Hill Murphy makes much of my technological heresy: “He… writes books without a computer, farms… without a tractor.” I must hurry to add: Though I believe those choices to be entirely defensible ecologically and economically, and therefore religiously and politically, I have never recommended them to particular persons or to the public. A pencil and a team of horses are dangerous when used without skill and experience, and perhaps even more dangerous when used without pleasure.
More important, Ms. Murphy’s article involves a geographic and economic misconception that your readers ought to consider. She assumes that my writing is necessarily false if it does not confirm, or is not confirmed by, her family’s experience “in the center of New York State,” or the experience of J. D. Vance’s family “in rural Kentucky” and in “a Rust Belt town in… Ohio,” which Mr. Vance recounts in his book, Hillbilly Elegy.
I have no authoritative knowledge about the center of New York State. And about a Rust Belt town in Ohio I know principally what I have learned from Mr. Vance’s book. About Kentucky I have perhaps a fair amount of genuine knowledge that I have gotten from experience, observation, and reading. Ms. Murphy’s error is in her assumption that “rural Kentucky” is one homogenous place. In fact, Kentucky is a state of several regions, and my region is in a number of ways unlike Mr. Vance’s.
Mr. Vance’s family’s homeland is in Breathitt County in eastern Kentucky, a region that, for more than a century, has been dominated by the one-product economy of coal. The social and ecological impact of that economy on that region has been devastating.
My home county of Henry, about two hundred miles northwest of Breathitt County, has been blessed by its paucity of mineable minerals. For about sixty years of my own lifetime, largely because of the federal tobacco program, this economy was also agrarian. The land was divided fairly democratically, and there were a lot of small farms on which families and neighbors worked together. My county, nevertheless, since the end of World War II, has been increasingly affected by the influence, the values, the enterprises, and the products of the industrial economy, which is now entirely dominant. That dominance has brought to us the dislocation, disintegration, aimlessness, drug addiction, and other evils that Mr. Vance writes about.
But in his book, like Ms. Murphy in her article, Mr. Vance does not look at the colonialist predation inherent in industrialism, or at the difference between the industrial economy and an economy that would preserve and employ kindly the land and the people of every region. That is a difference well worth thinking about. —Wendell Berry, Port Royal, KY